At this time of year, the only sight more familiar than a deep pothole is a pothole half-filled with crumbling cold patch.
But there's a new fix in the works for Niagara County roads that will leave them far from the usual uneven, semi-patched washboard-like surface.
When finished, this work, done with a polymer mix heated to more than 400 degrees, looks like a dark gray cake frosting has been spread over the holes and cracks. The surface is smoother than asphalt, the edges feathered out to evenness with the original road.
This new fix — not a quick one, but a lasting one — is being delivered by a motivated crew and a machine purchased last summer that has become an essential weapon in the annual war against tire-damaging, bone-rattling, nerve-jarring highway craters.
"I'm tired of dealing with potholes, and if you look at the amount of time our crews spend on dealing with potholes, you'd see how frustrating it is to keep coming back to them," said Dean E. Lapp II, Niagara County Highway Superintendent.
Lapp said the freeze and thaw cycles were bad this year. "It's been a horrible winter," he said.
"In the beginning of the freeze, we got a lot of snow, and it laid on the ground, when the cold came, it froze the roadbed, but it never froze the ground," which remained pliable and absorbent under the brittle pavement.
"That's the equivalent of eight years of normal climatic changes," he said.
So this is a good year for Niagara Countyto try out its Crafco Patcher, a relatively new trailer-mounted machine that heats, agitates and dispenses a thick mastic sealant.
In warm weather, asphalt plants are open, producing a durable, heated material to replace or repair pitted road surfaces. But the plants close from early December until early April, which is when many potholes crop up.
"We need to patch potholes in the wintertime," said Lapp.
The usual method of filling potholes in the winter and early spring is to shovel crumbly cold patch into the hole, then tamp it down with a heavy tool or run over it a few times with a truck tire. It's a quick fix but the cold patch yields quickly to the pressure of tires and is pried up and scattered by snowplow blades.
"They came up with this product, it met all of the needs and stayed put," said Lapp. The patcher cost less than $50,000 and arrived in the summer of 2017.
At first, highway workers were skeptical of the new process, said Lapp.
Given the pressure to keep the 566 lane miles of county roads in good shape, said Lapp, "They were saying, 'This takes too long,' they didn't want to do it. But now the guys I've got on it, they like it."
"It's demoralizing to go out and put something in the hole and have to go back the day after you plow it to put more in it because it's gone," he said. "With this, you're not coming back."
On a recent clear, cold day, a crew of five — Chris Lute, Randy Hagie, Brian Kress and Jim Lepkowske, along with driver Ed McDonald — were spreading the sealant on Tonawanda Creek Road just west of East Canal Road in Pendleton.
The crews load up the tank on the machine with about 70 blocks of solid material. At the start of the day, they fire up the heater, which warms oil that surrounds a melting tank. Agitation blades mix the material.
The patcher is towed behind a one-ton truck that also brings the crew to the job site.
On Tonawanda Creek Road, some of the potholes were 2 inches deep, with the occasional king pothole reaching 3 or 4 inches deep.
Before the crew filled the cracks and crevices in a long stretch of road the week before, "the cars were swerving all over the place," said Lute.
It took about an hour to fill a significant number of holes in a 75- or 85-foot stretch of road in the eastbound lanes. The melted filler material slid down the heated trough into the potholes, where the men smoothed it out with metal tools. As a finishing protective step they dusted the top with a layer of small gravel.
The cold weather helps the process. "The deeper the hole, the longer it takes to set up," said Lepkowske.
The most hazardous part of their job is working in traffic, they say.
"We'd love people to give us a break and slow down, and not go by us at full speed," said Lapp.
"To us, when we're on the road, anything over 20 m.p.h. is fast," said Hagie.
"And if they hit me, they will total their car," said Kress, who stands 6 foot 5.
This was a good day — the work went smoothly, and the crew got one thumbs-up from a driver and Anita McCandless of Pendleton slowed and rolled down her window to shout, "You're doing a great job!"
People have one concern when they see the road work, said Hagie. "They do ask if it's going to last." Lute tells them, "Any road we've been to, we have not had to go back and re-do."
"People on this street are very happy with these repairs," he said.