It is a bumpy reality that all roads, be they highways or byways, dirt, asphalt or concrete, will eventually go to pot.
"There is no such thing as a highway from here to kingdom come," admits Paul Cunningham, a chief in the construction and maintenance division of the Federal Highway Administration. "When you use natural materials in building roads, it's just natural that they wear down."
Thus are potholes born.
Cunningham and his colleagues at the highway administration are naturally concerned about potholes. It is bad advertising, after all, to have holes in your handiwork. So part of their attention is focused on finding quick, effective ways to fill them, especially during the winter months when potholes are most prevalent and hot-patch methods, which work the best, are generally impractical.
In the search for something approaching the Perfect Patch, researchers at the highway administration have examined materials containing glass, carbon, polyester, rubber, iron and steel. Most of those patches were developed by private companies anxious to tap the huge market in filling the potholes.
The Road Information Program (TRIP), a non-profit research group in the District, esimates that before this winter is over the nation's roads will have suffered 93 million potholes. That averages out to 49 potholes per mile for all paved roads in the United States.
Because of the epidemic proportions of the problem, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration funded a study in 1976 by a District research company, Public Technology Inc., to determine if any materials developed for the space program might be useful in patching streets.
"We took one specific cold patch material and tested it in 27 cities around the country," says Bill Mascenik, the program director at Public Technology. The patch was compared to the standard cold patch used in each city with positive results. "We had, on the average, a failure rate of about 16 percent as compared to 45 percent for the city cold mixes."
At $40 a ton, this new patch material is twice as expensive as the standard cold patch used in most cities and states, including the District, Maryland and Virginia. Other "exotic" cold patch materials being touted by manufacturers cost as much as $200 a ton.
"There are 105 miracle patches that are supposed to be the answer to a maintenance man's prayers," says Stan Ather, the District's street maintenance engineer. "But they want to sell it to you in five gallon pails... for $10 a pail."
Local maintenance engineers will admit that the standard cold patch of asphalt and gravel is, at best, inadequate. Some potholes may get filled a dozen times before a permanent hot patch can be applied in the spring. But given the financial restraints they work within, maintenance engineers complain that they have no choice but to keep buying the standard mix.
"There are budget considerations to think about," says David Ogle, the resident maintenance engineer for Fairfax County. "You've got the whole job to do. You can't patch half the holes with the money you've got and save the rest for next year."
Chuck Scheffey, the director of research at the U.S. Department of Transportation, puts the pothole patching problem into a consumer's perspective.
"When you go to buy a car, your best investment might be a leatherupholstered Mercedes Benz. But if you don't have the change, you end up with a Ford."