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Pesky Potholes Plague

By Marek Krasuski

For every Canadian there are things that go bump in the night – and the day and pretty much any time during this part of the year. Yes it’s those pesky potholes that pervade our municipalities and push our patience to the limit. Such was the case especially for a mother and daughter recently while driving over a railway crossing in Guelph, Ontario. They approached the tracks, a practice they did countless times without incident, whereupon the car plunked downward, the vehicle banging its frame onto the rails and leaving them at the mercy of any train that may happen to approach. With luck a Good Samaritan tow truck driver saw them and pulled the doomed vehicle out from the danger zone. The driver and passenger claimed personal injury from the impact of the car dropping to the bottom of the pothole.
Every year the extent of damaged roads and vehicles is part of the national conversation. And rightfully so. We can get to the moon but we can’t contrive a permanent solution to pricey potholes? And pricey they are – in terms of repairs, vehicle damage and even climate change. Repair bills can range from $200 to $500 for bent bushings, torn tires, wrecked rims, and damaged frames. And pothole repair, according to a CAA survey back in 2016, pegged the price at $1.4 billion. What this year’s damage will be, given the severity of the 2019 winter, is anybody’s guess.
So why does the pothole problem persist after so many years of trial and error? That’s what David Hein has been commissioned to find out by the Transport Association of Canada – to assess and report on this national plight. Part of the problem is lack of performance measures. Each city and jurisdiction has its own methods of filling potholes, but there is no central information and tracking system to determine how the repairs are executed and how durable those repairs are over time.
To find a solution it’s just common sense to identify the problem. And the problem, Hein says, is water. “Water does not compress, so if you have water trapped in the pavement, the bending of the surface causes the water to move and go someplace. So it squirts out top or goes between layers,” he said. Frequent freeze and thaw cycles, especially during a severe winter like this one, creates more disruption in the road structure. When water freezes it expands about 7 percent, Hein says, thus putting further pressure on asphalt. Trucks unfortunately cause a lot of the damage. Pavement bends under their weight. Repeated bending eventually causes the asphalt to break. But trucks aren’t the only culprit. Another cause for concern is the defects in the paving process. “When laying pavement down big particles may be separated from the small ones so it causes greater spaces between the aggregate particles, so water will go into these spaces which cause issues,” Hein explained.
The bigger the city, the bigger the problem. Toronto filled in almost 250,000 potholes in 2018 and 17,000 just since January of this year. The cost reaches into the tens of millions of dollars. On average Winnipeg deals with about 200,000 potholes per year and Vancouver 43,000.
If damage to roads and vehicles weren’t enough, there is also cost to the environment, according to Hao Wang, Associate Professor in Civil and Environmental Engineering at Rutgers University in New Jersey. “By fixing potholes or even doing early repair to [prevent] potholes, this would [change] the load resistance of your car tires, so basically you have less fuel consumption.” Less carbon dioxide emitted from cars no longer driving in fits and starts around and through potholes, or consuming gas in traffic delays caused by idling during pothole repairs, can reduce greenhouse gas emissions by up to 5 percent. Wang advises that cracks in pavement should be fixed immediately before they deteriorate further into potholes. This, Wang estimates, drawing on information from the US DOT, can save up to 10 percent from reduced tire and vehicle damage.
While better communication and record keeping would help in solving the nation’s potholes, a multi-factored assessment is called for, an examination which is anticipated in David Hein’s submission to the Transportation Association of Canada in April. An example underlying the difficulties is that few new roads are being built. Instead, efforts are targeted at rehabilitation and maintaining existing structures. This happens often enough when the problems are too big to ignore, rather than concentrating on preventative maintenance before potholes gain a foothold on our streets.
But governments – national, provincial and municipal – are just like the rest of us, susceptible to the convenient practice of “out of sight, out of mind.” Pretend the problem doesn’t exist until it can’t be ignored anymore. Funds are always tight with infrastructure budgets, so other projects take priority over the banality of potholes, especially since potholes form over time and the thinking is that the problem can be deferred to another fiscal calendar. A solution, Hein says, is to create a sustainable funding model so resources can be specifically allocated to preventative maintenance before roads fall apart. But where does the money come from? Road tolls or higher taxes would generate revenues, but how many politicians are prepared to inform their constituents they will have to pay even more taxes than they already do? Governments and politicians lack the political stomach for such unpopular, controversial, yet widely beneficial initiatives.
Governments, too, would do well to step away from the traditional lowest-bid tendering process. Cheaper does not mean better – or even cheaper in the long run – if quality of workmanship is shoddy and the repair cycle has to be repeated more frequently. Contractors don’t always do the best job, and it’s harder to hold their feet to the fire since most municipalities don’t have the manpower and inspectors to ensure repair work is up to par.
Municipalities could also do a better job of training their own workers. According to Hein, “It’s not what we put in the pothole; it’s how we put it in the pothole. Cleaning and preparing and tack coating, where you put a little asphalt cement around the outside and proper compaction all leads to better performance,” he said.
While preventative maintenance, better workmanship, project-specific revenues, and tighter quality control for contractors and municipal workers are just some of the solutions, many look forward to David Hein’s much anticipated report in April highlighting the numinous causes and solutions to the pesky problem of potholes plaguing our streets.

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