Drastic temperature swings, seemingly relentless snow and ice and high rock salt usage have combined forces to create a winter bumper crop of potholes that one engineer described as the worst in recent memory.
Factor in Northeastern Pennsylvania’s aging road system, and motorists are left with road surfaces that jar drivers’ sensibilities, create business for body shops and keep maintenance crews busy patching when not plowing.
Blame much of the deteriorating roadway network on unusual temperature swings, said George Albert, a civil engineer from Pittston.
The weekend’s two-day warm up — when average temperatures shot up to the 50s during the day — allowed asphalt to thaw as much as six inches to a foot, he said. This will likely cause more destruction as temperatures are expected to remain below freezing all week.
“When you have those specific conditions, it’s going to make it twice as bad,” Albert said.
In Albert’s memory, Northeastern Pennsylvania hasn’t seen these kinds of extreme temperatures in the last quarter century.
“There’s no question about it, anyone can look at historical temp data,” Albert said, explaining the three-week stretch with temperatures refusing to rise above 25 degrees laid a deep freeze on the region’s roadways. “Add on the nighttime cold temps, there’s no question, it’s probably been the coldest winter we’ve seen in the last 25 years.”
One tow truck company, Ayers Towing Service Inc. in Mountain Top, has noticed a rise in disabled vehicles and plenty of flat tires, owner Todd Ayers said.
“Oh it’s terrible. We’ve had bookoo, bookoo flat tires,” Ayers said. “I’m not saying we’re running around the clock, but we’ve had an unusual number of flat tire calls.”
Last weekend one driver was responding to a call at Turkey Hill gas station at Blackman and South Main in Wilkes-Barre. Ayers said one gas station clerk had been tallying flat tire stops at the gas station during the last several weeks.
“They were actually keeping count,” Ayers said. “She told my driver they had 94 people in their parking lot with flat tires.”
Paul Falzone, owner of Falzone’s Towing Service, echoed Ayers sentiment: service calls are up. He said he couldn’t be sure it is all because of potholes, but he has seen significantly higher service call volume this season than what typically happens in the spring when the ground thaws.
“It’s region-wide,” Falzone said of the pothole debacle. “You’re dealing with severe frost that occurred and then this thaw. Everything’s just a mess.”
Potholes form when water trapped below the asphalt freezes and expands, creating a bump. When it thaws, the roadway subsides and breaks up due to the shifting.
Albert, a licensed professional engineer who owns G & Albert Consultants, said while average temperatures have swung wide and frequently, heavy salting to prevent ice creates smaller freeze/thaw cycles in the smallest roadway cracks.
With every passing cycle, those cracks expand to result in deep and wide craters that have public works officials scratching their heads, he said.
Albert sits on Bear Creek Borough Council. He said the borough’s salt trucks target hills and intersections, but try to limit deicing materials applied to flat roads simply to prevent pothole growth. And it’s working, he said. Potholes are not so bad in Bear Creek. But limited salting simply is not an option in more urban areas.
Many of Luzerne County’s roads, like other older cities in the state, are built on top of old brick surfaces. Unlike gravel, which is the current way of prepping for asphalt, bricks can shift dramatically during freeze/thaw cycles causing more intimidating potholes.
Some asphalt manufacturers tout cold patch as a permanent solution to pothole problems, but any driver who has knelt roadside to swap a flat knows that the stuff doesn’t last.
Wet, cold and uneven potholes are imperfect hosts to cold patch, which costs nearly twice as much as regular asphalt. A single car passing over could be enough to pop out the plug completely.
“You can’t fix them,” Albert said. “There’s nothing you can do this time of year to fix them.”
The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation sees the pothole problem growing.
PennDOT crews are out patching potholes on dozens of the region’s state roads, but permanent repairs are not possible until the road temperature rises to at least 45 degrees, PennDOT spokesman James May said in a news release.
Reports for Luzerne County show PennDOT has purchased 111.13 tons of cold patch since Dec. 31, a 40 percent increase from this time last year when PennDOT had purchased only 79.9 tons during the same three-month stretch.
Cold patch through COSTARS, a Pennsylvania cooperative purchasing program used by local and state agencies, costs about $100 per ton.
Justin Schwartztrauber, a sales manager at American Asphalt in Chase, said most municipalities buy cold patch a ton or two at a time. Most can only use that much in a day, he said. PennDOT, on the other hand will buy a dump-truck’s worth, about 22 tons, for pothole patch jobs.
PennDOT does not compile an official list of pothole complaints, but Mike Taluto, a spokesman for District 4, which includes Luzerne County, said the department receives pothole complaints on its website, www.dot.state.pa.us, through it’s tip line, 1-800-349-7623 and also on Facebook.
Wilkes-Barre’s public works crews took advantage of the weekend’s warmth clearing storm drains and streets from snow, they were patching potholes, too, city spokeswoman Liza Prokop said in an email.
“The warm-up is a good thing for snow removal; however, the drastic changes in temperature does have an effect on the roads, not just in Wilkes-Barre, but most municipalities,” Prokop said. “Crews will be dispatched as soon as possible to address the affected roads based on the information called in from residents/travelers, as well as DPW employees that identify potholes during their work in city neighborhoods.”
Wilkes-Barre residents can report potholes to the the city’s public works dispatcher at 570-208-4240.
In Wilkes-Barre Township, the heaviest-traveled roads are maintained by the state. East Northampton Street, Blackman Street, Route 309, Highland Park Boulevard, they’re all state roads, and it’s up to PennDOT to keep them smooth.
According to expense reports, the township has spent $239 on cold patch this year.
West Wyoming has spent a little bit more on cold patch.
“This year, this winter alone, we’ve used upwards of 30 tons of cold patch,” borough Supervisor Eileen Cipriani said.