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A Wintry Obstacle Course

Drivers Dodge Potholes as Workers Rush to Plug Them

By Cameron W. Barr and Theola S. Labbe
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, March 2, 2005; Page B01

A pothole is an unexpected emptiness, a tiny abyss in the road in front of you.

Sometimes it holds a pool of glassy water. Sometimes it doesn't. Maybe it was there yesterday. Maybe not. There are those you can avoid. And those you can't.

Washington resident Pedro Fabian struggles to change a flat tire on his wife's car after it hit a pothole on North Capitol Street. (Bill O'leary -- The Washington Post)

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"I thought it tore my wheel off," said PeteSluis, a Wheaton car salesman, recalling a recent encounter with a pothole in Fairfax.

Potholes are a sign that winter is loosening its grip. Monday's snowstorm left the usual assortment of cracks and fissures in the region's roadways for drivers to dodge and for road-maintenance workers to plug.

Many schools in the Washington area started an hour or two late yesterday, but rising temperatures ensured a fairly smooth morning rush hour. The National Weather Service said there is a chance of rain and snow this weekend.

As he drove to work yesterday morning, Tyrone L. Washington Jr. of the District's Department of Transportation saw the damage Monday's storm had done. He knew he would spend the day filling potholes.

At 8 a.m., Washington joined a four-person team of workers crisscrossing the city in a beat-up-looking two-ton truck. The workers had shovels and a tamp, a tool that resembles a plunger but has a flat, metal end. They scooped shiny dark-gray asphalt into crevices in the road and tamped it down. Then they piled into the truck and continued along their way.

The workers started in Northwest, but by early afternoon, they were near the Langston Golf Course on Benning Road NE, a busy four-lane road.

Wearing a bright green reflective vest and steel-toe boots, Tamarcus Jones stood about 50 yards from the truck and directed traffic away from one of the westbound lanes, while the rest of the workers scooped and poured the cold pebbles of asphalt.

Cars whizzed by, most of them heeding Jones's hand signals, which made him look like an airport worker.

Renee Morrison filled one of the holes along the road. She said motorists want the work done but sometimes get impatient when they see a parked truck in the middle of the road. "Sometimes they get rude, but it's not bad," Morrison said as a fierce wind whipped. "You just have to watch yourself out here."

The crew worked quickly, stopping for less than 10 minutes to fill about seven holes. "This is just temporary," Morrison explained, a quick fix after the storm until the road can be repaved.

President Bush understands the fundamental political value of this work. He routinely encourages the mayors he meets to "fill the potholes." One Web site has tracked him dispensing this advice on 62 occasions since taking office.

The Maryland State Highway Administration issued a statement last week announcing that its crews "are working diligently to repair potholes." It said the administration spent $2.3 million last year to provide 45,300 square yards of pothole patching.

Glen Tolson, a 27-year veteran of Montgomery County's Department of Public Works and Transportation, said filling potholes is satisfying work. He said the county generally fixes potholes within 72 hours of when they are reported.

A pothole is a metaphor for an unanticipated disruption, but with some asphalt and a few minutes' labor, smooth passage can be restored.

It is not work, Tolson noted, that offers any finality. "It never ends," he said.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company