It’s a familiar sound on South Sound roads and highways in winter: BUH-dump-BUH-dump followed by @#$%&!
Potholes are sending hubcaps flying and making tempers flare across the South Sound. Don’t expect them to go away anytime soon, say those who are scrambling to patch them.
Rae Bailey, Tacoma’s street operations manager, has extra crews working to fill the growing list of holes spotted by city personnel or reported by citizens.
In the short term, the waiting list is long. But overall, Tacoma’s pothole landscape is shrinking, Bailey said. He credits the city’s Streets Initiative, passed in 2015, for lessening the annual pothole crop by half. The initiative provided funding to rebuild and repave streets across the city.
In 2017, 22,500 potholes were temporarily patched in Tacoma. In 2018, that number decreased to 18,200. The tally continued to fall in 2019 to 16,520 and again in 2020 with 12,500.
Potholes filled in 2021: 9,700 at a cost of $402,000.
Potholes aren’t something a government agency can sweep under a rug. Most potholes in Tacoma are reported by citizens who call 311 or fill out a form on the city’s website.
“A lot of times we don’t know about them until we get a complaint,” Bailey said. “So, we really appreciate people actually taking the time and contacting 311 or even calling us directly.”
Temporary pothole repair is a year-round endeavor at the city. Permanent pothole repair is reserved for the warmer and drier parts of the year. Normally, it takes three to five days for a crew to respond to a pothole complaint, Bailey said.
“One complaint may have one pothole, or we may end up filling 10 to 15 potholes,” he said.
This week, there was a two-week backlog, but a pothole can get immediate attention if it’s on a heavily traveled arterial or dangerous.
Extra pressure can come from social media, which can make formerly anonymous potholes into temporary celebrities.
A pothole that opened up Friday morning on southbound Schuster Parkway was already on social media by the time a temporary patch crew was on the scene at 6:47 a.m. It had grown to 2-feet-wide and 3-feet-long when it was filled.
HOW THEY HAPPEN, HOW THEY’RE FIXED
Blame water. That’s what gets under and around a future pothole.
When temperatures go below freezing, that water turns to ice, expands and loosens the pavement. Meanwhile, water and ice push up from beneath.
Then, it’s a matter of time before that section of pavement pops out and a pothole is born.
It’s easy to tell whether a pothole has a permanent or temporary patch. A permanent patch has four sides. A temporary patch just fills the cavity in whatever shape it takes.
For a temporary fix, crews remove loose debris and then shovel in cold mix asphalt. It’s then smoothed to match the street surface. A temporary patch can last from a couple of months to years.
A permanent fix is more involved. First, a square or rectangular section of pavement containing the pothole is cut out. Loose material and clay are removed. If needed, the hole is filled with crushed rock. It’s then capped with 3 inches of hot-mix asphalt and compacted with a roller. Finally, joints are sealed with rubberized asphalt.
Washington’s state highways get more of everything: More traffic, more weight and more speed.
It can all add up to a sudden pothole emergency for road crews and a huge headache for drivers.
While city crews keep a mostly daytime schedule, the crews that fix potholes for the state Department of Transportation usually work by night. It’s the time that traffic volumes ease enough to lessen impacts that lane closures can have.
“If we’re going out there during the daytime and doing work, it has to be an absolute emergency,” said Matt Beattie, maintenance manager for WSDOT’s Olympic region which covers Tacoma, Olympia and the Olympic Peninsula.
About $630,000 is spent annually repairing potholes and making other repairs in the region, according to spokesperson Stefanie Randolph. Statewide, $4.9 million was spent on repairs in the 2019-2021 biennium.
Potholes aren’t the only weather-related injuries to the state’s freeway system. Expansion joints — those metal strips that join bridge decking to each other allowing them to move slightly in response to temperature changes — can fail during a freeze-and-thaw cycle.
A sudden failure of a joint or pothole can rapidly disable a large number of cars.
“We’ve had scenarios before where we’ve had 10 or 11 vehicles lined up on the shoulder of I-5,” Beattie said.
In the city, traffic can detour around a closed street. On the freeway, even the smallest lane closure can entail hundreds of feet of lane merges, closures and miles of backups for drivers.
Because long stretches of interstate are built at once, it’s not uncommon for an entire section to fail when it’s reaching the end of its life. That’s what happened last week on I-5 south of the DuPont/119 exit.
The road surface began to delaminate, Beattie said. Like paint peeling off an old fence, sections of pavement began to separate from the road bed beneath it.
“We became aware of it as it started to arise in lane one and by the time we were able to get to it, it moved into lane two,” he said. Both lanes were paved at the same time so the spread didn’t surprise Beattie.
The 2-mile-long repair area used up 150 tons of hot asphalt, according to WSDOT spokesperson Cara Mitchell.
The potholes in that emergency repair, like most that spring up on highways, were 2 to 2-1/2 inches in depth. But sometimes they can get as much as 8 inches deep, Beattie said. He’s seen at least one open up on a bridge deck that had only air beneath it.
Before the pandemic curtailed traffic on I-5, some 140,000 vehicles used I-5 daily in the vicinity of Joint Base Lewis-McChord and 200,000 in Tacoma. A single pothole can jolt thousands of vehicles.
State highways use both concrete panels and asphalt as paving surfaces. Both can produce potholes, Beattie said.
The state tries to replace road surfaces before they begin to deteriorate, Mitchell said.
“That’s usually a longer term construction project, like a resurfacing project, that we’ll plan out,” she said.
But potholes don’t always give notice when they decide to happen.
Prevention goes a long way in preventing them, Beattie said. Chief among those are chip sealing and crack sealing.
Like Tacoma, WSDOT encourages drivers to report potholes as they see them.
If your vehicle is damaged by a pothole on state highways, you can submit a claim with the state Department of Enterprise Services. Filing a claim does not guarantee a reimbursement.
▪ To file a claim for damages incurred on state highways: des.wa.gov/services/risk-management/file-claim.
▪ To report an issue on state highways: wsdot.wa.gov/about/contacts/send-us-your-feedback.
▪ To report potholes and other service requests in Tacoma: cityoftacoma.org/ or call 311.
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