Winter forces highway chiefs to get creative on potholes - The Buffalo News

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Winter forces highway chiefs to get creative on potholes

The Town of Tonawanda Highway Department, tired of the never-ending game of “whack-a-pothole,” took a drastic step last week.

Instead of cold-patching individual potholes that pocked a stretch of Parkhurst Boulevard, crews ground the street down to its base with the town’s milling machine, creating a rough ride until it can be repaved.

“This is a shot in the dark,” said Highway Superintendent William E. Swanson. “Nobody has the answers.”

It’s just one of the tactics being employed to address the abundance of potholes popping up on roads and highways in cities, town and villages throughout the region. Local governments are trying a variety of approaches to combat the scourge, which has been compounded by a prolonged freeze/thaw cycle this winter.

Erie County Public Works Commissioner John Loffredo said there are two to three times more potholes on county roads this year than last year as a result of the treacherous winter season.

“When it’s very cold, the frost goes deeper into the ground, which means it raises everything a little, but it doesn’t raise everything evenly, and that’s what creates the cracks,” Loffredo said.

“We’ve been hit hard in a number of ways. First, the amount of snow we’ve had; and second, the duration. We started in December this season, and normally it starts in January. This year, we got an early start to the season, and I anticipate a late finish,” Loffredo added.

Hamburg Highway Superintendent Tom Best said that, so far, there hasn’t been a noticeable increase in the number of potholes on town roads, but that crews are out about one day a week patching potholes. That will increase to up to five days a week with the spring thaw, when the extent of the problem will become more apparent.

“I’m worried about when the snow starts melting,” Best said.

Filling potholes is part of the normal workday in Cheektowaga and West Seneca, where crews are routinely dispatched without having to raid the overtime budget.

“We have a hot-patch truck that’s out every day,” said Cheektowaga Highway Superintendent Mark Wegner. “Our potholes aren’t that bad yet.”

As a result of the town’s aggressive approach in repairing and repaving its streets, Wegner said more than half of them have been paved over the past seven years, making them less likely to develop potholes.

West Seneca Highway Superintendent Matthew D. English said the multiple freeze/thaw cycles have caused an increase in complaints about the condition of roads in the town, but many of the worst ones are not owned by the town.

“The people in West Seneca are pretty educated on what’s county ... and what’s state,” he said.

“Definitely, there’s more potholes,” English said.

Matt Hoeh, superintendent of public works for the Village of East Aurora, said its roads have been riddled with potholes, requiring the use of four times as much cold-patch material as usual. Hoeh said the potholes in need of repair are as small as four inches across and as large as a couple of square feet. The larger ones are generally easier to repair because they hold the cold-patch better, he said. They will be repaired more permanently with hot asphalt once the weather warms, Hoeh added.

Back in the Town of Tonawanda, Swanson is hopeful that milling Parkhurst was the right move. Runoff from melting snow in nearby Lincoln Park only made matters worse by washing away asphalt and causing the street, at its worst, to resemble the moon’s cratered surface. Swanson plans on having it paved in the spring once a new sewer line is installed.

“Give it a week, and we’ll find out if it’s really going to do the trick or not,” he said.

Drivers, such as town resident Matthew Dicanio, are also hopeful that the town’s strategy works, not only for their safety, but for the sake of their tires, shocks, struts and alignment.

“It’s rough on cars,” Dicanio said while stopping at a nearby 7-Eleven. “I have a newborn, too, and I don’t like to have a rough ride for her.”

But he doesn’t take evasive action and swerve all over the road to avoid potholes.

“I slow down a lot, so it definitely slows traffic,” Dicanio added. “I don’t like to veer over into lanes because that can cause an accident with other cars coming.”

Municipalities are also concerned about the impact of the prolonged winter weather on their budgets.

Erie County’s 2014 snow-removal budget is about $2 million. That includes funds for plowing, patching roads and purchasing salt. For the most part, overtime accrued in highway and public works departments is not a result of patching holes, but of plowing.

“In general, we’re $500,000 over our budget because of our winter,” Loffredo said.

In Hamburg, Best said his department has already spent $422,000 of its $2.2 million payroll, which is 20 percent of its annual payroll budget. He said he may have to reduce the amount of overtime for paving jobs this summer, which could result in fewer town roads being repaved.

“If it snows up until May 1, I’m in trouble,” Best said.

On Grand Island, Highway Superintendent James B. Tomkins is staying ahead of repairs without resorting to using crews on overtime.

“I believe this is because, when we do our asphalt patches in the summer, we mill out the bad areas so that patches are flush to the road surface,” Tomkins said.

“This keeps our pavement repairs from peeling off and lifting out when the plows hit the road. We haven’t seen any increase in pothole activity on our roads as of yet this winter,” Tomkins added.

Otherwise, there is a two-man crew out patching potholes almost every day when the weather permits, he added.

As is the case in many suburban communities, most of the main roads on Grand Island are owned and maintained by the county. And, Tomkins said, that is where a majority of the town’s potholes can be found.

“Even though they have promised us they would get here, we have not seen a Erie County DPW pothole repair crew on Grand Island as of yet this winter,” Tomkins said last week.

Erie County owns 2,400 lane-miles of road, which, prior to the start of the winter season, it rates on a scale of 1 at the worst to 10 at the best.

“Some of the roads, at the start of the season, normally go into being rated fairly good, say a seven that might be dropped down to a six by the end of the season,” Loffredo said.

“Now we have severe problems with potholes that we would not normally expect during a regular winter, and it’s on many roads. It’s like an epidemic,” he added.

Much of the manpower of the county’s Public Works Department has been devoted to plowing the roads this winter, rather than filling potholes.

“When we get a break, we will try to fill the potholes,” Loffredo said.

“If it freezes up on you, you can’t do it. The problem we had when we do fill the potholes is that it doesn’t stay, and after a period of time, it gets knocked out. It just doesn’t adhere at those temperatures,” he added.

The compound used to make asphalt is mostly stones and heavy oil, not tar, as many might assume, Loffredo said.

News Staff Reporters Janice L. Habuda, Barbara O’Brien and Joseph Popiolkowski contributed to this report. email:

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