The snow isn't even gone, but its demon seed is sprouting everywhere: a killer crop of potholes that has blossomed across roads in the last few days.
For motorists still jittery from slaloming down snow-covered byways, the glut of radial-shredding potholes has created new obstacle courses. Roads -- from Wayne Avenue in downtown Silver Spring to Glebe Road in Arlington to Bladensburg Road NE in the District -- resemble spots on some artillery range. And with more snow expected this week, things can only get worse.
"We're now at peak season," Robert Marsili Jr., the District's chief of street and bridge maintenance, said as he watched one of his crews at work yesterday.
The Day-Glo-vested highway workers were part of a thin orange line that's waging a battle against the pothole. Nine pothole crews were out in the District yesterday, having traded their snow-removal gear for shovels full of steaming asphalt. In Alexandria, an extra four-person crew was called out to deal with the problem, joining two city crews dedicated full time to pothole repair.
"I have big potholes, ones that will shake your teeth," said Brett Sweeney, maintenance division chief for Alexandria's Department of Transportation and Environmental Services. In Arlington, cars traveling in the right southbound lane of Glebe Road swerved around craters large and small.
Things were just as bad in Prince George's and Montgomery counties. "Potholes are everywhere," said Rob Tolley, chief of road maintenance and construction for Prince George's. "All the weak spots are showing up, so to speak, and that'll continue for the remainder of the winter and into the spring."
John Thompson, chief of Montgomery County's highway division, made a dire prediction: "It'll be the worst of the past several years."
This year, the District is deploying a new weapon in Operation Pothole: a rolling road-repairer that can make permanent fixes, even in cold, wet weather.
"This takes us to a new level," Marsili said, with a nod toward the Pro-Patch truck that idled at 39th and Macomb streets NW. It is one of four $100,000 vehicles the city took delivery of about a month ago. A single Pro-Patch and its crew of three can do the work of two trucks and at least five people, Marsili said.
The first step after arriving yesterday was for Tamarcus Jones, 23, to go at a nasty pothole with a stiff broom, brushing out as much water as possible. With the water swept away, Richard Rosebar, 36, used a chisel-bladed jackhammer to carve out a rectangular space around the hole and break up the "alligator" asphalt, cracked pavement that resembled the reptile's skin. Once he'd removed the punky asphalt, Rosebar unwound a wand-tipped hose from the back of the truck and sprayed the hole with a coating of "tack," emulsified asphalt that helps the gravelly pavement material stick.
At the direction of Roland Thompson, 47, a landslide of asphalt, warmed to more than 280 degrees by propane heaters, poured down a chute and sizzled on the road.
The ability to spray hot tack and dispatch hot asphalt all day long is what makes the truck so special, said Dan Tangherlini, director of the D.C. Department of Transportation. In the past, crews operating in the winter used "cold patch," a temporary fix. Road crews know it by the less-than-reassuring nickname "throw-and-go" for the way they ladle it on, tamp it down and drive away. But Tangherlini said that even cold patch has improved, with better recipes that don't require refilling the pothole a month later.
(Hot asphalt has another benefit, Thompson said. He's been known to cook his lunch in it, wrapping fresh fish and vegetables and a little oil in foil, newspapers and a brown paper bag before resting it in the hopper. "Put it in at 9:30, and by 11, I've got fish meat falling off the bone.")
Back on 39th Street, Thompson used a wide-toothed, rakelike tool known as a lute to even out the new asphalt at a level higher than the adjacent street. "Me being an artist, we want it to look good," he said as he raked the asphalt off with the precision of a pastry chef frosting a cake.
The final step: a good pounding with the Wacker, a gasoline-powered pavement compactor that looks like a lawnmower without a blade. As Jones ran it over the asphalt, clouds of steam poured out of the ground.
Area officials weren't surprised by the sudden glut of raggedy roadway. This winter created ideal conditions for potholes: plenty of moisture and numerous freeze-thaw cycles. Rain and melting snow seeped through cracks in the road's surface. As it froze, the water expanded, cracking the pavement.
Marsili said the city's aim is to fill potholes within 72 hours of a report. The Virginia Department of Transportation gives priority to fixing dangerous potholes on interstates within a day and potholes on most other heavily traveled roads within 48 hours, said VDOT's Joan Morris.
When the 39th Street holes had been filled, all that remained were three neat patches. The crew's next stop: around the corner on Idaho Avenue. "We've got some real axle-breakers there," Marsili said.
Staff writers Annie Gowen, Chris L. Jenkins and Susan Levine contributed to this report.