Signs of spring—volunteers filling potholes on local and state roads

By Mary Ebeling

After a seemingly endless cold and snowy winter in much of the country, people are finally noticing signs of spring—crocuses, daffodils, potholes. Yes, potholes—by all accounts massive ones. The potholes may have gotten out of control this year because of the epic cold and snowy winter in some cities and states, but the problem is part of a larger challenge. Reductions in state and local funding for roadway maintenance, and dysfunctional or non-existent asset management programs plague almost every community. These trends, and the resulting deferred maintenance, are starving local roads programs, often in the name of new construction.

In Waterloo, Iowa, it has come to this: “vigilante” crews of volunteers are filling potholes on local streets. The donated labor and cold mix asphalt make a strong statement about the dire situation with local road maintenance. Giant, crater-like potholes are reported in New York City, which has filled 80,000 potholes this season in contrast with the 50,000 of spring 2013. Potholes are sending drivers to repair shops in droves and at lease one pothole is implicated in a fatal crash in Minnesota. Cabbies in New York City report being flipped off by their passengers when they find their trip shortened by a flat tire or bent wheel caused by a pothole.

Across the nation’s snow belt, from small cities like Waterloo, Iowa, to large cities like Chicago and New York, potholes are getting the better of city budgets and staff. Michael Cox, Cleveland’s Public Works Director, said, “This pothole problem … nationwide has become a very big problem this year with the extreme cold we’ve had … It’s just destroyed the street and destroyed the infrastructure … .” Potholes are a symptom of a larger challenge around how states and local governments allocate money to maintain transportation infrastructure. If the problem of starving road maintenance budgets in favor of paying for new construction is not addressed, this infrastructure problem is likely to continue.

Mary Ebeling is a Transportation Policy Analyst at SSTI.