Pothole season arrives early, to dismay of D.C. area drivers

A crew patches potholes last week on the 14th Street bridge near the District. The bridge is being overhauled but repaving has to wait.
A crew patches potholes last week on the 14th Street bridge near the District. The bridge is being overhauled but repaving has to wait. (Deb Lindsey/the Washington Post)
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By Ashley Halsey III
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 18, 2010

This winter of misery has turned driving into something of a steeplechase: Dodge the mountain of snow, straddle the black ice and, now, swerve around the cavernous pothole.

Pothole season usually hits full bloom a couple of weeks before the spring flowers, but this year melting snow and unseasonable gyrations in temperature have formed lots of pavement-cracking ice overnight.

As the snowplows scraped away the final crust from back-to-back storms, they uncovered thousands of new potholes, some that got big in a hurry this week as thermometers jumped between the thawing 40s and freezing 20s.

Dealing with the sudden profusion of potholes would be a challenge in the best of times, but on the region's highways these are not the best of times. The process of digging out continues and, for the most part, the people who repair potholes are the same people who have been driving snowplows 12 hours a day for the past two weeks.

"Just as soon as we put away the snow equipment, we turn around and go out on potholes," said Joan Morris of the Virginia Department of Transportation. "It's usually the early part of spring when we see the potholes."

Morris and her peers in the region's other transportation departments all said the same thing: If it's big and dangerous, we want to get right on it. If it's small and can wait, it's going to.

"Our first priority is clearing the snow," said Esther Bowring, spokeswoman for Montgomery County. "We're also responding to any major potholes, and some of these are pretty big. If people are swerving to avoid them, we want them addressed."

Bowring said all of Montgomery County's snowplow crew supervisors carry a can of pothole-patching pitch for quick fixes on large holes.

"Anything smaller," said Susan D. Hubbard of the Prince George's Department of Public Works, "we're going to deal with once we get the snow taken care of."

In Maryland, county pothole crews patch secondary and residential streets. All numbered roadways are the state's responsibility.

John Lisle of the District Department of Transportation said he knew there "were some big ones out there" that were being tackled by the city's "pothole killer" trucks (which allow a single worker to patch a pothole without leaving the driver's seat), but "they don't seem to be out of control yet."

This was not always the case in Washington. For decades, potholes were such an issue that some local political platforms were based in large measure on a promise to fill them. Marion Barry once launched a $1 million mayoral "war" on potholes; in 1987, potholes were so large and numerous that snowplows had trouble clearing the streets.

When Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev came to the District in 1990, crews rushed to patch potholes in places his limo might travel. The same year, a candidate for the D.C. Council patched a dozen potholes herself to make a point. Columnist Art Buchwald wrote in 1996: "Many of them are so large that an aircraft carrier can disappear into one and never be heard of again."

"It's not as bad as it used to be," Lisle said. "On any of roads that are older and not in great shape, it can be a problem."

For example, he said, look at the 14th Street bridge. Repaving the road surface has been scheduled once a major overhaul of the entire span is nearly complete; in the meantime, the old pavement is pocked with potholes.

All of the transportation departments have online pothole complaint forms.

"Our guys are out there," Bowring said, "but they can't catch every one of them, so we rely on people to report them."

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