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As pothole season begins, drivers, crews get their fill

When we asked readers about potholes, they told us where to go – and it was all over.

From Main and Bailey at the University at Buffalo to Sweet Home Road in Amherst to Jennings Road in North Collins and Route 86 in the Southern Tier to “all of – ” fill in your community name here.

But they suggested it would be easier to list the streets without potholes.

’Tis the season, to be sure.

It is the season when tiny cracks in once-smooth streets grow to become gigantic craters, threatening to claim even the sturdiest SUV.

And drivers beware – we’re just at the beginning of pothole season.

New York State has a nifty brochure describing the “Anatomy of a Pothole.” It describes water seeping through cracks in the pavement, the pavement seizing up as the water expands when it freezes. Then the ice thaws, the pavement drops down and breaks in as tires pound it.

As the cycle repeats itself, the cracks turn into crevices and larger chasms.

But until last week, it was all “freeze” around here, without a thaw since the beginning of January.

“Some of these roads have held together because ice and pavement were all one,” said Erie County Public Works Commissioner John Loffredo. “They’re not all one, now the ice has turned to water.”

The frost is 4 feet to 5 feet deep, noted Cheektowaga Highway Superintendent Mark Wegner.

“What we’re finding is the roads are heaved and cracked. We’re waiting for the thaw to see if they’ll drop back to where they were,” he said. “If these roads don’t go back to where we were, we’re in trouble.”

Still, it has been a vibrant start to the season.

“Just look for parts from under my car,” one reader wrote on The News’ Facebook page.

“Abbott by the Dairy Queen, cracked my grandmas rental car,” wrote another.

“Right at the bottom of my driveway in the Town of Tonawanda,” a third wrote.

Road crews work over the summer patching and repaving, usually improving the worst roads. But that leaves the roads that were next in line last year over the line today.

“The roads that were just on the edge last year have gotten worse. Usually the worst roads get the most potholes,” Loffredo said. “The roads that were passable last year have now taken their place, and they have potholes.”

Clarence road crews are out, eight hours a day, putting cold patch into potholes, town Highway Superintendent James Dussing said.

“Roads can flex a little more under the weight of traffic,” he said, but he added, “I think things are going to be blowing out.”

Clarence residents can report potholes on the Clarence town website, and many other municipalities have that function, too.

The key to staying on top of potholes is to fix them as early as possible, and Buffalo Public Works Commissioner Steve Stepniak said the city’s 311 line has been helpful to let him know where they are.

The city is targeting Main Street near UB for milling and paving as soon as the asphalt plant opens.

“That’s a high-traffic area,” he said, adding, “this is one of those winters.”

Sometimes potholes form where they are expected, and sometimes they pop up in unexpected areas, he said.

Wherever they are, they can be horrendous, as Marilyn G. Balon of Lackawanna describes one.

“It’s huge, it’s right on the side of the road, and you could actually lose a tire in there,” Balon said of one on Abbott Road in Hamburg. “A lot of times it’s covered with water.”

That one is in Hamburg, but it could be anywhere.

“The question would be easier to answer if you asked ‘Where have you NOT seen potholes big enough to swallow your car,’ ” one reader wrote on The Buffalo News Facebook page.

Another motorist said a huge pothole “blew out both passenger side tires at the same time!!!” proving that driving in Western New York this time of year can be costly.

Probably the least expensive damage to a car would be replacing a wheel that got dented, said Nick Pera, owner of Schmidt’s Collision in Depew.

Sometimes the bottom of the front bumper slaps the ground at the same time, cracking the bumper. More serious damage could occur to the vehicle’s suspension, he said. And when you get into the suspension items of the car, “you’re talking big,” he said.

Repairs could run from $300 for a new wheel to up to $2,500 for more serious damage, Pera said.

Minimizing damage from potholes starts in the summer. That’s why highway crews seal cracks during the summer and fall.

There may be some good news on the prevention side, a new product that might keep cracks from forming as quickly.

“The latest thing is fiber in asphalt mix. The fibers should act like reinforcement in concrete,” Loffredo said.

Erie County has tried a test sample of the mix on about a one-mile stretch of Hopkins Road between Klein and Dodge roads in Amherst, he said. Part of the road has a traditional asphalt.

“We’re going to keep an eye on both of those and check the cracking to see if one is better than the other,” he said.