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Michael Miller

Viewpoint

By Michael Miller
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Pothole Peril Offers Opportunity To Improve

The potholes, the potholes, the horror, the horror. Reactive maintenance isn’t going to cut it anymore. Like so many other standard operating procedures that are breaking down under changing conditions, we need a new way of approaching the pothole problem.

If local governments pretend that it’s some blip and that revenues and temperature variations will soon be back to normal, the situation will only grow worse and more expensive. We need new ways to discover, report and track the holes, and to monitor and measure success.

Many roads and streets went into the winter with cracks from three consecutive years of unusually harsh weather. Rain, snow and ice get into cracks. After multiple storms, even fast work crews can’t keep up. The town governments of Hempstead, North Hempstead and Oyster Bay alone are in charge of over 3,500 lane miles of paved roadway, and typically resurface one to three percent of that each year. Those roads probably now contain well over 20,000 potholes.

There are millions of potholes just in the Northeast. The situation isn’t going to magically improve, and drivers, businesses and governments across the region are paying billions of dollars for pothole damage to vehicles. Some sections of local roads are so pitted and holed that total rebuilds will probably be required.

Local governments are going to have to rethink what road surfaces are made of and how they can better be preserved.

Originally, the turnpikes were covered with wood planks. The hot technology of the 19th century was mixing up broken stone with tar. North Hempstead, Oyster Bay and Huntington ended up with the best roads because they were littered with giant, unwanted boulders that became a convenient source of material. Not long after the Civil War, something close to modern asphalt was being manufactured.

Right up to about 1905, there were constant public arguments and debates over what materials should be used in road beds and surfaces, but soon bitumen (asphalt, a petroleum product) won. Important reasons included how soft and quiet asphalt was against horse hooves, and the lower up-front costs of covering a road.

Today, most research about road surfaces comes from the asphalt industry, and it’s time for a new debate that doesn’t center around wear and tear on buggies and wagons. Europeans are experimenting with adding steel wool to mixes.

If it makes anyone feel better about Long Island governments, the pothole plague is everywhere. It’s becoming the stuff of local legend in some places. Members of “Urban Repair Squad” paint sound-effect words like “Thunk!” and “Oof!” on Toronto’s potholes. The Pothole Robin Hood” of Jackson, Miss., broke into city asphalt stores and fixed 101 potholes, marking them “Citizen Fixed.”

Perhaps you saw one of the news reports about the gentleman in Levittown who began filling in potholes on his street. This was an unintentional throwback to how roads were maintained around here for over 150 years.

More than a century before we had a public school system, when witchcraft was still an ongoing concern to some, town meetings elected (often drafted) citizens to be Overseers of roads that ran along and near their properties. Overseers were responsible, one way or another, for making sure roads and fences stayed in good repair. These were the first “special districts.”

One concern about residents pouring sand into potholes is that it’s not a good “cold patch” (temporary fix) and might make some holes worse. Here was an opportunity for local governments to step forward and engage residents as teammates. Correctly trained and supplied citizen brigades may be a way forward.

The pothole menace has encouraged many governments to accept the usefulness of citizen reporting  and public tracking of repair progress. That’s a good starting point.

Michael Miller's Email: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it

Michael Miller is a freelance writer, designer and strategic consultant who has worked in state and local government. Email: millercolumn@optimum.net