Misery begets misery, and a relentless winter this year has produced a record pox of potholes across the Washington region, rattling drivers, flattening tires and often reducing traffic from its every-day crawl to a virtual standstill.
There are gawkers and sufferers. The former edges their cars around a broken-down vehicle, the latter stand forlornly by the curb to await a tow truck.
There will be enough of those pothole victims to fill Nationals Park by winter’s end. AAA alone has already come to the aid of 22,418 of them throughout the region since New Year’s Day, and state roadside service trucks and independent tow truck drivers have gotten their share of the action, too.
“There was a car in front of me, and I didn’t see it,” said Elizabeth Harrison, 17, who hit a pizza-sized pothole on Belmont Ridge Road in Ashburn. “At first I didn’t think it was that bad, but then the warning on my dashboard went on and said ‘low tire pressure.’ ”
The seven big potholes on that road were filled Friday, but the damage already done to Harrison’s dark blue Volvo resulted in an $800 bill for a new tire and rim.
Blown tires, bent wheel rims and busted struts caused by potholes add up to an estimated $6.4 billion yearly expense nationwide, and after dreadful winter weather in a large swath of the country, this year the number might be higher.
“It’s not restricted to the Northeast states or the Midwest states,” said Greta Smith, a pothole expert at the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials. “The Southeastern states are really hurting, too. We are going to have some rough roads all over this spring.”
State and county pothole pluggers were out in force by week’s end, as their agencies were swamped with complaints from angry drivers. The people who run those agencies are too circumspect to say so, but the week before they were bombarded by people who wanted their streets plowed. The people who drive plows and salt trucks patch potholes when the weather permits.
“Potholes are the bane of my existence,” said Valerie Burnette Edgar of Maryland’s State Highway Administration. “Snow on top of snow, and we can’t fill them while plowing. The delay in being able to fill them has been frustrating.”
With winter in assault mode for much of the season, Maryland has put its road crews on snow-sleet-freezing-rain duty 27 times so far in the eastern half of the state.
How much havoc can be caused by a single pothole? Have a look at what happened when a bad one opened up on the Capital Beltway near McLean one day last week.
An AAA driver was dispatched to change a flat tire caused by the pothole. While he was at it, his radio squawked out three more calls about auto club members whose tires had just been flattened by the same hole. Virginia Department of Transportation roadside rescue vehicles began to arrive to help other drivers.
“Three different [road service] trucks were working within a mile span, and there were probably about a dozen vehicles on the side of the road with flat tires,” said Bruce Jenkins, AAA’s fleet service manger in Springfield. “It’s crazy out there with potholes this year. They’re worse than I’ve seen them in a long time.”
Crazy, indeed, said Joan Morris of VDOT.
“This year will be one for the records,” she said. “We really need people to report them by calling our 800 number” at 800-367-7623.
The commonwealth will spend more than a million dollars this season on pothole repair in Northern Virginia, she said.
Stretches of the District resemble a moonscape — notably 16th Street NW and parts of Rhode Island and Florida avenues. Beach Drive looks like it has been hit by a barrage of mortar fire. The intersection of Washington Boulevard and North Pershing Drive in Arlington sports a tire-sized hole. The pothole at the corner of University Boulevard at Colesville Road in Silver Spring is even bigger. Westbound Route 50, near the exit for Cheverly, is peppered with potholes. The exit ramp from the George Washington Parkway southbound to the Key Bridge has gotten completely mangled.
They seem to be everywhere, and there is a certain sameness to each unpleasant encounter. A jolt, the groan of a shock absorber in distress and, if it’s a true crater, a fender that quickly sags in the direction of a tire that flattened on impact. Time to call for help. And to do something else, too.
“Document everything,” said AAA’s John B. Townsend II. “Take a photograph of your vehicle, take one of the pothole and take one showing your vehicle in proximity to the pothole.”
AAA gets a lot, but not all, of those tire service calls. So far this year it has recorded 1,913 of them in the District, 7,603 in Virginia north of Richmond, and 12,902 in Maryland. Overall in February, tire calls jumped by 12 percent over last year.
“Every jurisdiction around here is getting slammed,” said Reggie Sanders of the District’s Department of Transportation, which has patched more than 7,673 holes this year.
“I want people to understand that it’s all a temporary measure right now,” Sanders said. “People may see a pothole and say, ‘I thought they just fixed that,’ because it cracks again. We can’t begin actual repaving work until the ground temperature is consistently above 40 degrees.”
For people from around here and those who live farther north, the birth of a pothole is an old story. Here is the simplest retelling: There is a tiny crack in the pavement surface. Water seeps in. It freezes. Ice expands with surprising power. The pavement cracks. Repeat several times, and you have a full-blown pothole.
The reason that this is the worst pothole season in recent memory is even simpler. It can be told in a number: 32. That, of course, is the temperature at which water freezes.
In really cold climates, there are fewer potholes. In Caribou, Maine, temperature has been above freezing only 10 times since the beginning of December. In Fargo, N.D., seven times. In Fairbanks, Alaska, six times.
Not a lot of water there to be seeping into cracks. It’s frozen 24 hours a day most days.
In Washington this winter, there have been 61 days since Dec. 1 when the high temperature was above 32 degrees and the low temperature was below freezing.
There have been more than two dozen days when the low fell under 25 degrees, giving ice plenty of time to form and flex its muscle inside pavement cracks.
Now throw this into the mix: Rainfall has been more than five inches above normal in the past three months.
Lots of freeze-thaw days. Lots of water. Lots of potholes.
The tons of salt, and the briny mix used to treat roads before snow falls, aggravate the pothole situation.
“Salt penetrates the layers of concrete, and with asphalt there’s some stripping because it’s so acidic,” said Smith of the transportation officials group. “It affects the life of the pavement. And the brine — there are some states where they refer to that as bridge dissolver.”
There is one more factor that is a lot less obvious:
There are potholes you never lay eyes on that spawn potholes.
The roads around Washington are old roads. Some of them have a glossy new finish of asphalt or concrete, but that is like lipstick on a corpse. Beneath that facade on the road surface, the layer of concrete or packed gravel has gone rotten.
That core on which the road rests develops potholes of its own, and when that happens, what lies on top crumbles into deep craters much faster. It has been estimated that 62 percent of the roadways in and around Washington are need of repair, including a lot of the Capital Beltway, and much of it needs to be dug to bare earth to attack those that potholes no one ever sees.
“We have some old roads,” said Edgar of Maryland’s highway administration, “and they can be problems, because we fill them with patch and the hole comes back.”
The cost of pothole damage has been estimated at $6.4 billion nationwide by Richard Retting of Sam Schwartz Engineering, the Fairfax transportation firm whose founder popularized the term “gridlock.”
Insurance people don’t have their own estimate of the total cost, but State Farm said the average driver who files a claim pays between $300 and $700 per pothole encounter.
“Over the course of the lifetime of a car, potholes set you back about $2,000 in damages,” said Townsend, who advises people against filing insurance claims.
“The cost of a repair may be less than your [insurance] deductible, and it will stay on your [insurance] record for a few years,” he said.
The better choice, he said, is to file a damage claim with the state or local government. In Northern Virginia, VDOT is responsible for all roadways and accepts pothole damage claims. In Maryland, it’s more complicated, because the state owns some roads and the counties are responsible for others. In the District, the Office of Risk Management accepts claims.
“It all depends on who the road belongs to,” Townsend said. “Send those photos to the appropriate authority. It may take a long time to get your money.”