Take away the snow and whaddaya got? Lots of potholes, right?

Wrong. Or, at least not that many, says Stanley Ather, the District of Columbia's street maintenance engineer.

"Well, sure, we've had a few holes but nowhere near as bad as last year," says Ather, who eyeballs the asphalt from Anacostia to Friendship Heights. "I've got 16 crews on the street right now and they're pretty much up with things. Last year I didn't have enough men on the payroll to handle it. Supplemented with contractors."

You may have jarred your fillings out on the way to the office yesterday--nobody claims there aren't any potholes at all out there--but Ather says the one that got you was just a seasonal phenomenon and part of a relatively benign outbreak.

"It's not really the right weather to grow the big ones," he says. "You need more moisture and a regular cycle of real cold nights and warm days. On the whole, we've had a warm winter. Our snow accumulation is approaching normal, but we've gotten it all in two storms. It's not that bad out there yet."

David Curtin, Maryland's top highway maintenance engineer, agrees. He says he has heard of no profusion of potholes at one yearly trouble spot, the Cabin John Bridge on the Capital Beltway.

And as for the Woodrow Wilson Bridge, where the potholes are often "see-throughs" offering a view of the Potomac below, Curtin says the situation is normal--except for traffic tieups caused by construction crews working to redeck the entire span.

Paving engineers say the birth of a pothole is the product of moisture seeping into cracks in the pavement and then expanding as it freezes.

The expansion pries chunks away from the main pavement surface which then wash away as the ice melts.

More moisture and more freezing and melting repeats the cycle. Since bridges get colder than surface roadways, they tend to have more potholes.

Ather says pothole complaints go directly to the foremen in charge of each of the eight maintenance districts in the city. The only real problems he knows of this year are in the perpetual pothole gardens, like the New York Avenue bridge over the Anacostia River and the southbound 14th Street bridge over the Potomac.

"Both of those are already due for complete resurfacing this year," Ather said. "They were already on the schedule."

However, if the potholes are packing a weaker punch these days, the cars are sporting weaker chins.

"The front ends are just lighter . . . the control arms made of sheet metal," moans Bill Emmart, owner-manager of Safety Check Inc., an alignment shop on Kenilworth Avenue. "It's terrible what we accept these days."

Emmart, who's been undoing pothole damage for 40 years, says it's a bit early yet for business. "The majority won't come in until they see tire wear."

Dan O'Neil, manager of Bethesda Auto Service, agrees.

"If the car's still going halfway straight, they'll avoid bringing it in until they can't drive it any more," he said. "It's a matter of economics."