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Potholes have hit D.C. particularly hard this year, and the complaints are mounting

Pothole complaints in Washington, D.C. have doubled from what the city received by this time in 2018. Here’s what is being done to fix the pesky problems. (Video: Amber Ferguson/The Washington Post)
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At the intersection of Fourth and K streets NW earlier this month, a road crew filled a pothole that had caused headaches for motorists since it was reported days before. Minutes later, the eroded, crumbling patch of road was mended, and the crew moved on.

Next stop: the 200 block of Independence Avenue SW for a report of another uneven road. Then it was D and First streets SE. Another half-hour, another pothole.

There was no shortage of options. The District received 280 pothole complaints that day, each vying for the attention of road crews dispatched to an increasing number of cratered roads.

Potholes have struck the Washington region particularly hard this year, according to a Washington Post analysis of about 20,000 pothole complaints logged by residents over the past five years. The increase has meant delays for frustrated motorists waiting on crews to smooth the affected streets.

The city received more than 7,000 such complaints from January to mid-March, the most for that time span since at least 2015. The number is double what the city had received by this time in 2018, and almost four times more than this point in 2017.

The Post’s analysis found the biggest hot spot for complaints this year stretches between the Columbia Heights and Manor Park neighborhoods — roughly between New Hampshire and Kansas avenues — in Northwest. Elsewhere, complaints were concentrated just east of Rock Creek, as well as in Chevy Chase in Northwest, on Capitol Hill, in Lincoln Heights in Northeast and in the Fort Davis Park area of Southeast.

According to data from the DC311 system — which allows residents to request city services — work crews are taking longer to get to a given pothole, often exceeding the District Department of Transportation’s goals.

DDOT aims to repair potholes within three business days of receiving a complaint. On average, repairs are taking more than eight business days this year, according to the analysis of city data.

But the number of complaints made by residents represents only a portion of the city’s potholes. As of Thursday, the city had filled 22,624 potholes this year, according to DDOT figures. The agency has started concentrating crews in a single ward each day to shorten drive times between repair sites.

Mechanic shops have noticed an increase in customers with tire blowouts and other pothole-related vehicle damage.

AAA Mid-Atlantic reported that about half a million pothole-related insurance claims are filed annually. Commuters have also taken their criticism of the region’s roads to social media.

Potholes are an auto mechanic’s best friend about now

Anna Schuttenhelm moved to the District last year from Wisconsin. She drives to work each day and has noticed road conditions deteriorate.

“Back in Wisconsin, locals will say that the roads there are really bad,” she said. “Those roads seem perfect compared to ones I’ve experienced here.”

Transportation officials blame the skyrocketing number of potholes on the region’s roller-coaster weather.

Potholes are created when moisture seeps into pavement, freezes and expands. The process is repeated and results in a weakened structure, which crumbles under the weight of traffic.

Storms last year made 2018 the wettest year on record in Washington, with more than 66 inches of precipitation at Reagan National Airport, the city’s official reporting station.

National Weather Service meteorologist Jim Lee said June 2018 through February 2019 saw the city’s fifth-highest nine-month precipitation total on record. And amid the precipitation, temperatures fluctuated.

Washington recorded its lowest February temperature — 18 degrees — on the second day of the month, then rebounded three days later to that month’s highest temperature — 74 degrees.

“That was a rapid warm-up, which may also be a contributing factor in pothole formation,” Lee said.

Persistent rain across the Washington region on Thursday brought a slew of fresh potholes to end the week. A ruptured storm water pipe created a sinkhole that forced the closure of part of the George Washington Memorial Parkway in Virginia for hours Friday; officials said the incident was not caused by any defect in the road’s surface but began underground.

District residents can report potholes to the city’s 311 system. Fairfax County in Virginia and Prince George’s and Montgomery counties in Maryland also invite the public to report potholes.

The Virginia Department of Transportation reported that service requests doubled this year from the same time last year — from 2,140 to 4,446. Maryland’s pothole complaints leaped from 1,300 to 2,024 in the same period.

Starting Monday, Virginia officials will begin a “pothole blitz,” devoting staff to work overtime to fix potholes within 48 hours of receiving repair requests on state-maintained roads.

On the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, the speed limit was lowered earlier this month because of a proliferation of potholes. It was reduced to 40 mph between Routes 197 and 32, causing traffic to crawl occasionally as motorists were forced to slow down and maneuver through rough spots.

Park Service’s fix for potholes: Slow traffic so motorists can better dodge them

The National Park Service is expected to repair the numerous potholes along the parkway, with a bigger plan for resurfacing in the worst area this fall. Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) has been critical of the Park Service’s response to road repairs in the state, saying the agency “is simply not up to the task of maintaining MD-295.”

District officials said they have improved their ability to repair potholes after buying equipment that allows for more efficient work. Crews have closed about 11,000 pothole service requests in the past 12 months, said Terry Owens, a transportation spokesman for the District.

But despite crews’ increased efficiency, the pothole surge has slowed repairs, data shows. Although DDOT’s goal is to repair potholes within three business days of receiving complaints, crews are more than six days overdue this season on the average pothole.

The delay in repairs creates a safety concern for motorists. In 2017, the city’s Office of Risk Management reported that the District paid more than $46,000 in pothole-related claims to drivers.

According to DDOT, 32 percent of the city’s roads are listed as being in poor condition, and 27 percent are in fair condition.

Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) has promised that by 2024, all city roads that are in poor condition will be repaved, at a cost of about $215 million. By comparison, DDOT spent $24.6 million on street resurfacing and roadway improvements in fiscal 2018.

Schuttenhelm, the recent D.C. resident, said she hopes the city follows through.

“It definitely was a surprise when I moved here,” she said. “It doesn’t match all of my very positive feelings that I have toward every other part of this city so far.”

Luz Lazo contributed to this report.

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