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Holey moley!; Readers and officials agree: This is a brutal year for potholes

Sue Kirwan of Lancaster was the victim of a pothole on Kenmore Avenue between Starin and Englewood on March 9, and she wasn't alone.

"It was impossible for me to avoid it because I never saw it," on the rainy night, she said. But after the telltale thud shook her car, Kirwan knew she had a flat tire. She pulled into the parking lot of Budwey's Supermarket and went inside. As she gathered her cell phone and AAA card, she mentioned to a cashier that her car had just fallen victim to a pothole.

The cashier replied, "Oh no, not another one!"

It turned out that a truck from AAA was already in the lot, helping another driver with a flat tire. Kirwan noticed yet another pothole victim, a dejected young man with two flat tires.

The next morning, Kirwan called AAA. "The representative told me there were 10 calls March 9 starting about 9:10 p.m.," Kirwan says. "But she said that there were two more calls March 10 starting at 8:19 p.m. So we know that at least 12 cars were involved with this pothole."

"This time of year, the potholes get filled with water," says Vernon Martell, manager of Car Care Plus in Clarence. "It just looks like a puddle, and you don't realize that it's an 8-inch-deep pothole until it engulfs half the tire."

The close encounter cost Kirwan $202 to replace the tire and the wheel rim.

Kirwan may have gotten off easy. "We had one this afternoon with almost $3,000 worth of damage," says Martell. "Tires, wheels, control arms, lots of damage. If you're lucky, you can get away with something as simple as knocking the alignment out," which could cost $49 to $109 to repair.

The pothole on Kenmore wasn't the only one to claim multiple cars. On the evening of Feb. 28, Niagara Falls police were called by a driver whose car hit a large pothole in the 8700 block of Niagara Falls Boulevard. While an officer was taking a report from the first driver, four more cars were damaged by striking the pothole. Estimates of damage ranged from $125 or so for damaged tires to more than $250 for a destroyed tire and rim.

"We have been out in that area probably five times," says David Kinney, director of public works for the City of Niagara Falls. "We patch it, but cold patch, the material we have to use in the early spring, is porous. Rain in the daytime fills the holes, and when it goes below freezing at night, the water freezes and pushes up the material, cars come by and they knock it away. I have to say that it's very frustrating for the guys and gals who work for me, to fix potholes and then to have to go back a few days later and fix them again."

>March madness

When we asked readers to nominate the most horrendous of the season's potholes, suggestions poured in. March is the cruelest month when it comes to potholes, and this March is particularly bad.

In Buffalo, City Hall troubleshooters fielded 370 pothole complaints in the first two weeks of March, more than the 340 they received in the entire month of March 2010. Experts blame severe frost-heaving caused by an unusually long season of freezing and thawing cycles.

"And we've also noticed some of the potholes are deeper than in prior years," said Buffalo Public Works Commissioner Steven J. Stepniak, because frost penetrated deeper into the ground this season.

"I have talked to my counterparts in other parts of the state, and they have told me that this was one of the most brutal winters that we have had in a long time," says Kinney. "Every single day, there was either snow or that freezing, sleety stuff, and you have thaw-freeze, thaw-freeze."

In Buffalo, some of the most severe problems have been reported on heavily traveled routes that are used by thousands of trucks and buses. Common Council offices have reported complaints about minicraters along stretches of Richmond Avenue, Colvin and Delaware.

It's clear that highway crews across the region are hard at work. Some of the holes were filled by the time we checked them out. Others were verified as being vicious but were filled before they could be photographed, in one case three hours later.

In Niagara Falls, two or three crews are out every weekday filling potholes with the only option available now, which is called cold patch. This sticky, granular substance is shoveled into holes and then tamped down. Kinney says Niagara Falls has recently changed to a new brand of cold patch, which he says should adhere better to the ground and keep a pothole filled longer.

The local plants that produce the more durable "hot patch" are only open from early April to the end of October, so next month crews will be able to use the heated asphalt to do more permanent repairs, says Kinney.
In Buffalo, five or six trucks are on streets each weekday, filling as many as 200 holes daily.

So, bearing in mind that some of these potholes have been filled by the time you read this and undoubtedly others have cropped up, here are your winners:

*Deepest pothole: Now that the multihole monster at the southwest corner of Seneca Street and Michigan Avenue has been reduced to a series of dips and ridges -- although it still is uneven enough to get anti-lock brakes chattering -- the top prize went to its neighbor, a sharp-edged pothole on the south side of Seneca just before the I-190 off ramp. Late Friday morning, that hole was jouncing cars; by midday Friday it had been filled.

Several deep potholes on Main Street in the city were spotted, including a few clustered near the end of the Scajaquada Expressway ramp and one at Eastwood Place and Main that damaged the tire and rim of Kathleen DeLaney last week. A day later it was filled, but the next day she reported, "The pothole is almost half back now. They have to use something better than toothpaste."

*Widest pothole: It's not actually a pothole, it's more of a construction hole left on Doat Street near the corner of Burgard Place where workers dug up the pavement to get access to gas and water lines, a neighbor says. "We saw a car go into it today," says Sharan Krystyniak of Goembel Avenue. Another series of holes on Doat was filled just days after Krystyniak complained about them. Before that, she said, "You really do risk life and limb and car if you make attempts to avoid them."

"There's one on Sheridan Drive in Amherst, between International Drive and Transit, that literally takes up a lane and a half," says Martell. "You can't avoid it and you have no option but to let off the gas and hold the wheel and hit it straight on."

*Worst stretch of road: This category drew the most complaints, and the problems are more difficult to solve. Even after a pothole is fixed, the repair can leave a lump in the road that's almost as bad as a crater.

The competition was tough, but the abysmal state of Eden Evans Center Road in Eden between the Thruway exit and Route 20 gave it the title. Wide cracks, uneven sections, heaves and potholes pock the narrow road.

Runners-up were Buffalo Avenue in Niagara Falls, Williston Road in Marilla between Two Rod and Four Rod roads and Dodge Street between Michigan and Masten avenues.

Tenth Street in Niagara Falls also drew some complaints, but residents -- one of whom came out to express his ire to a News photographer -- will get their wish for a smooth road this year. Kinney says a contractor is preparing to resurface the street from Niagara Street to Cedar Avenue, including sidewalks. "They'll have a very good street when it's done," he says.

Also pocked with pits and peaks are parts of Cayuga Road in the Village of Williamsville, various parts of Elmwood Avenue, including the entire Bidwell Parkway intersection, Colvin Boulevard in North Buffalo from Kenmore Avenue to Hertel Avenue and all of St. James Place.

A resident of William Street in Lancaster calls the mess at Lake Avenue the "world's largest," and expressed frustration that the craters and divots have had drivers ducking and dodging since 1997.

North Tonawanda streets had a few nominations, too. Kelly Brick nominated Sherwood Avenue, saying, "Please note, everyone who travels this road agrees with me that this is the worst street in North Tonawanda." Patti Kindron expressed concern for people using wheelchairs and motorcyclists, saying, "There are going to be a lot of foolish accidents if we don't fill the potholes up soon!" Jean Frederick says Sweeney Street between East Robinson Street and Division Street "is one big obstacle course to drive. My friends say it is like the road to Baghdad!" A day after writing, she called to say that a crew had come by and filled the potholes. "So North Tonawanda is getting on the potholes, which is good," she said.

>Preventing damage

Keeping your tires properly inflated can prevent costly damage, says Martell. "Tires are designed to cushion the rims and other parts of the car from impact, and 10 pounds of pressure can make a big difference," he says.

If you spot a pothole, report it to the municipality. In Buffalo, call the city 311 center or 851-4890, or visit www.city-buffalo.com/311, then click the "streets" icon.

For four years, Buffalo has had a 48-hour pothole repair guarantee, with crews aiming to fill potholes within two business days of receiving complaints. In most cases, said Stepniak, the city has met that goal.

"I think we do a good job when compared with other cities -- especially given the [winter] conditions we face," said Buffalo City Engineer Peter J. Merlo.

If a pothole damages your vehicle, keep your repair bills. Municipalities have varying rules to determine whether they will pay for damage. A good place to start in seeking reimbursement is by calling the local highway department to determine which government or agency has responsibility for the road.

News staff reporter Brian Meyer contributed to this report.

e-mail: aneville@buffnews.com

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