Fewer potholes are expected to afflict the Washington area's roadways this year than last because of milder winter weather and improved maintenance, the American Automobile Association said yesterday.

Nevertheless, the AAA estimated that nearly a million potholes will need to be patched this year on local streets and highways. The association announced its second annual "pothole alert" to encourage drivers to report damaged roads to state, county and city agencies.

"It's not as bad a year as it was last year," said AAA spokesman Tom Crosby. Some local transportation officials disputed the AAA's estimates, but they agreed that pothole prospects appear brighter this year.

"This winter's weather has not created the type of conditions that traditionally produce potholes," the AAA said. "December was the warmest December this century. January had five snowstorms and freeze-thaw cycles, but once it began warming up late in the month of January, it has remained relatively warm through February."

In addition, the AAA pointed to pothole-prevention efforts in the District and Maryland.

Last summer, Mayor Marion Barry launched a $1 million assault on potholes, promising to fill every hole reported by District residents. Officials said repair crews responded to nearly 2,000 complaints and used 6.5 million pounds of hot asphalt to patch holes, seal cracks and repave several major thoroughfares.

At the same time, Maryland highway officials completed a $17 million resurfacing along two major stretches of the Capital Beltway extending nearly 25 miles. "We should not see a pothole for many years to come," said Michael Snyder, suburban Maryland chief for the State Highway Administration.

The AAA estimated that local governments would likely spend $2.2 million to repair more than 990,000 potholes this year if normal weather patterns prevail this month and next. The forecast marked a significant decline from last year's AAA estimate of 1.26 million potholes.

Other officials said the number of potholes in the Washington area has never been calculated and described the AAA estimates as unreliable and probably exaggerated.

Crosby conceded that the AAA had employed "a very imprecise method" that may be open to "valid criticism," but he added, "It's the only method that exists." The AAA survey found that local agencies had obtained 24,793 tons of asphalt and said this was enough to fix 991,720 potholes.

Potholes result from expansion and contraction of moisture beneath the pavement during cycles of freezing and thawing weather.