Higher temperatures make for rougher roads

A pothole on private property, such as this one in front of a retail strip center at 75th Street and Beebe Drive, can cause just as much damage as one that develops on a public street.  |  Susan Frick Carlman~For Sun-Times Media
A pothole on private property, such as this one in front of a retail strip center at 75th Street and Beebe Drive, can cause just as much damage as one that develops on a public street. | Susan Frick Carlman~For Sun-Times Media

If that dreaded “bam!” has yet to befall your ears as you’ve driven down an area road in recent weeks, count yourself lucky. And watch where you’re going.

The potholes are likely to proliferate.

Naperville streets are being smoothed out this week by a pair of crews applying asphalt to fill temporarily the places where the pavement has developed craters that can bend tire rims and knock suspensions out of alignment. So far, the task has been manageable.

“Right now we have seen a slight increase in the number of pothole complaints,” city spokeswoman Kate Schultz said Monday.

As of last Friday, the Public Works Department had fielded 45 calls reporting potholes since wintry conditions began in November. Responders armed with asphalt typically come out within 24 hours, Schultz said.

While the calls are tracked, the actual repairs are not, so the number of holes city crews have filled with the “cold patch” treatment is likely much higher.

“They see a pothole, they fix it proactively,” said Schultz, who noted that the sharply shifting temperatures forecast for this week suggest the number of pavement holes will rise.

That’s what Jennifer Krug McNaughton expects as well. Sub-freezing temperatures bring the advantage of keeping pavement stationary.

“The cold that we experienced, even last week, was helping us,” said McNaughton, vice president of K-Five Construction Corp., who said pavement fails when warming happens. “Our freeze-thaw cycles right here in this area are really detrimental to the overall transportation system.”

Starts with a crack

People who specialize in keeping drivers moving smoothly down the road agree that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of asphalt.

“What people have to understand is you can’t have a pothole without first having a crack in the pavement surface,” said engineer Larry Galehouse, director of the National Center for Pavement Preservation, a quasi-government entity affiliated with Michigan State University. “Agencies have been cash-strapped for a number of years, and now it’s all coming home to roost.”

Potholes would not be as troublesome as they are if the nation had invested more up front, Galehouse and others say.

In its report card on the nation’s infrastructure last year, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave America’s roads a D. In a recent post on the group’s blog, contributor Becky Moylan quipped that “pothole-dodging could be an Olympic sport.”

But it is no laughing matter. ASCE estimates it would take an investment of $3.6 trillion by 2020 to ensure the safety of highways, bridges, the power grid and other public resources.

Naperville aims to minimize the pain in the wallet that pothole encounters can bring. City Manager Doug Krieger noted in a recent memo that the current budget provides $11.6 million for the annual street maintenance improvement program.

“The objective is to maintain pavement service strategically and regularly by overlaying at the right time, along with crackfilling, patching, and surface seals to manage water trying to enter the pavement,” Krieger said.

Drivers across the U.S. already are paying a steep price for the hole-pocked roads. TRIP, a nonprofit organization that researches surface transportation issues, released a report last year estimating that “unacceptably rough” roads cost the average urban driver $377 a year in repairs — or a total of $80 billion nationwide.

Sometimes the taxing body picks up the bill. Jill Wilger, a member of the city’s legal team, said there is a claims process in place that so far this season has brought in five requests from drivers seeking reimbursement from the city for their repair costs.

“Anybody who feels their vehicle has been damaged by a pothole is free to file a claim,” said Wilger, adding she understands none of the claims has yet been settled. “Each and every claim is investigated on a case-by-case basis, so if the city has any liability, we do address it.”

The Tort Immunity Act insulates the city from liability to a certain extent. The law exempts a taxing body from being sued in many situations in which a private party could owe somebody for damages instead.

Design flaw?

It’s possible Americans simply aren’t building roads correctly in the first place, according to some engineers.

Mats Wendel of the Swedish Transport Administration thinks America could learn something from his country, which he believes has more stringent requirements for asphalt composition and road construction than the U.S., to account for the wet and cold. He said additives such as cement and lime are compulsory in the top layer of asphalt on Swedish roads, and that there are even stricter limits on air bubbles within the asphalt.

“We take the frost in the ground into consideration when we construct our roads, and they don’t really do that in the U.S.,” Wendel said.

However, Sweden also has taken cues from road builders in Arizona and California, who use rubber in the mix to avoid cracks.

Galehouse said American taxpayers spend an average of about $21 monthly on state and federal road taxes — a fraction of what they pay for cable television or a cellphone.

“And yet, what is one of our most expensive investments out there?” he said. “It’s our automobile. And we’re wrecking our automobiles because we’re hitting potholes.

“The key is not fixing them. The key is preventing them.”

The Associated Press contributed to this story.