Every morning, rain or shine, 55 District of Columbia maintenance men shovel warm, oily black asphalt from trucks into hundreds of potholes.
Although they distribute about 35 tons of asphalt daily, their work often goes unnoticed, because so many of the city's roads are deteriorating because of age, bad weather and a lack of maintenance.
"The streets in our nation's capital, once recognized as among the best maintained in the country -- have come to resemble a World War II minefield," said Glenn T. Lashley of the American Automobile Association. m
City transportation officials agree that "the streets need help."
While the officials said they don't know how many streets are "in distress," as one of them put it, the national research arm of the highway industry estimates 48 percent of the District's most heavily traveled roads are "barely tolerable for travel at legal speeds."
That group, The Road Information Program (TRIP), said 113 of the city's 392 miles of major roadways are in fair condition and 78 miles are in poor condition, using estimates based on 1976 data from the U.S. Department of Transportation.
To begin catching up on years of deferred maintenance, the District has proposed boosting its budget for resurfacing and rebuilding roads from $7.2 million this fiscal year to $36.2 million for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1. That money -- if it survives the District's budget crunch -- would pay for work on 29 of the city's 1,020 miles of roads, according to James E. Clark, the city's assistant transportation director for planning.
Testifying before a City Council committee last October, city transporation director Douglas N. Schneider said, "We found that over the years what's been happening to us is we've been cutting that program back in a way that's beginning to affect the condition of the streets n a degree that's unacceptable."
According to Clark, the city began cutting back on road maintenance in the mid-1960s when it put most of its construction dollars into building freeways. Then, in the early 1970s, most of tis construction money went into new school buildings.
Now, when the city wants to improve its streets, federal and local funds are in short supply. Clark said the city needs to spend $30 million or more in each of the next few years to put the streets back into shape. The District receives $17 million annually from the federal government for road maintenance -- but much of that goes to repair local bridges, which are in worse shape than the streets, according to government studies.
Clark said the city's worst streets are Blair Road (scheduled for resurfacing next year), Eastern Avenue, sections of Western Avenue and South Captiol Street (scheduled for a complete rebuilding next year).
Other transportation officials named New York Avenue, Military Road, Wisconsin Avenue from Tenley Circle north to Chevy Chase, and East Capitol Street from Benning Road to Southern Avenue.
The pocket streets are causing injuries, costly repairs and, according to TRIP, wasteful gasoline consumption.
Since January, four Metro bus drivers have been injured in pothole-related accidents, a spokesman said, three of them in the District of Columbia.
Several taxicab and car rental companies reported they have experienced damage to front-end suspension systems, blown tires and bent tire-rims -- all, they say because of the proliferation of potholes.
Albert Smith, vice president of Bell Cabs, said he remembers one particular incident when none of his drives hit a pothole and the car's frame broke.
"He was trying to make it to the garage when the police stopped him and gave him a ticket for driving an unsafe vehicle," Smith recalled. "They took it down to the inspection station and they [the city auto inspectors] condemned the car on the spot."
George Becker, repair shop manager at the Yellow Cab Company, said he has had the front end of his own car aligned twice in the past six months, a job he used to do once a year. Becker said the problems started when he changed jobs and had to start driving along potholed New York Avenue NE each day.
TRIP, meanwhile, estimated that mortorists waste 27 million gallons of gasoline a year because they must slow down for potholes and rough spots and then accelerate again. The extra gasoline costs each mortorist about $100 a year, a TRIP spokesman said.
Although the city fields 25 to 30 two- and three-man crews daily to fill the street holes. Schneider told the City Council committee last year that 60 percent of the holes come right back.
"We pat them as best we can and then depend on traffic to do the rest," said Charles Williams, engineer in charge of maintenance and construction. He said it takes each crew less than five minutes to patch a hole.
The city usually finishes patching the thousands of holes left by the winter weather by mid-May, but the repairs will take an additional month this year, said Stanley Ather, the maintenance supervisor, because of manpower cutbacks. s
He said 10 years ago, he had 30 trucks and 100 men to fill the cavities; now, because of the tight city budgets, he is down to 55 men and 12 trucks, "if we are lucky."
Tight budgets aside, Lashley and Archie Richardson, president of the Automobile Owners Action Council, a local consumer group, both charge that Schenider has neglected street maintenance as part of his program to discourage the use of automobile in the city.
Schneider responded angrily, "That's the stupidest thing I've ever heard, but considering the sources it doesn't surprise me." Schneider announced Thursday that he was resigning, effective in August as head of the department.