A force of 60 men equipped with 20 truck loads of steaming asphalt took to Washington busiest streets yesterday to patch an array of gaping holes. By day's end, some of the temporary fillings were still in place. Others had been jostled free by heavy traffic.
Such is the nature of street repairs during "pothole season," that time of year when prolonged periods of snowy, rainy and freezing weather cause the payment of many heavily traveled streets to buckle, crack and create crater-like holes.
"Last year wasn't so bad. We had a pretty mild winter," said Bernard J. O'Donnell, deputy director of the D.C. Department of Transportation. "But the complaints this year started a few weeks ago when the first freezing weather set in. The worse part is we won't be able to make permanent repairs until spring."
Each year potholes open like small vocanic fissures in the area's streets and roads creating a treacherous obstable course for suburban commuters and town drivers alike, as they weave their way to their appointed destinations.
By early spring, there is a list of pothole casualties such as car headlights that were knocked out of line or front ends that had to be reset.
Mother Nature is most often blamed for the advent of the pothole, which is aggravated by rain and snow and temperatures dropping below freezing.
"The problem begins when it rains or snow and water seeps into tiny cracks in the street," said O'Donnell. "The water freezes, expands and causes the pavement to heave upward.
"When cars come along, the pavement is broken into small pieces. The pieces are soon scattered and you have a hole that gets bigger and bigger as cars drive over it," he said.
O'Donnell said that salt and other chemicals used on streets during periods of snow cause chemical changes in paving material - expecially porous concrete. The chemical-saturated concrete gradually loses its strength, he said, and deteriorates.
Another problem, O'Donnell said, is that some streets, built many years ago to serve small communities, now serve as main commuter routes. The standards were lower a few years ago," he said. "Then a street was required to have only 7 inches of paving material, now we put on a 10-inch thickness of pavement."
Potholes are a problem in many American cities and are the subjects of research programs of the U.S. Department of Transportation.
Charles Scheffey, director of research at DOT, said researchers are searching for paving materials that might be "pothole proof." He said some thought has been given to use of such materials as mining waste, treated sewage sludge and incinerator residue in the creation of a new kind of pavement.
Once pothole repairs begin, said O'Donnell, maintenance crews must continue the cycle of "patching the patches" as many of the temporary asphalt plugs are gradually picked up between the tread of car tires and carried away. This spring, permanent repairs will be made he said.
O'Donnell said that as soon as the weather clears, his workers will be able to turn their attentions to the side streets.