Elizabeth Kunath has suffered during late winter.
The server at Mike’s Hot Dogs in Schenectady winces whenever her Honda Accord drops into a pothole.
“It’s like I can feel the pain for my car,” Kunath said Thursday during her shift at the Erie Boulevard restaurant. “I feel my car’s pain and my wallet’s pain.”
Potholes have meant unhappy motoring for many people in the Capital Region. A harsh winter with bitter cold temperatures interspersed with brief warm respites has caused freeze-thaw cycles and potholes. According to the state Department of Transportation, water seeps into fatigued pavement and, when colder temperatures move in, the water freezes and expands. The process deepens and widens cracks, creating bulges and sinking sections of pavement.
Bunches of potholes were on display Thursday in downtown Schenectady, including a few formidable ones in Mike’s
parking lot. Kunath has been seeing the craters in many other places.
“Harrison Avenue is all potholes,” she said. “There’s one at Taco Bell on Altamont Avenue, as you pull out of the drive-through. And on Albany Street, right before Notre Dame-Bishop Gibbons. Every time I hit them, I get mad.”
Anthony “Skip” Scirocco, commissioner of public works for the city of Saratoga Springs, can’t do anything about Kunath’s pain or anger. Like other public works supervisors in the Capital Region, all he can do is keep sending out crews for patch missions.
“It’s probably bad all over,” he said. “We’ve got our share of them. . . . We’ve had this unusual winter as far as the frost getting deep into the ground and then you have the thaws; that’s what really creates the potholes.”
Scirocco’s road agents have been spending part of the week on plow duty, widening streets. They’ve also been finding time to use asphalt “cold patch” to fill holes and give motorists and their wheels serenity and stability. Temporarily that is.
“The tires hit that thing and they just pull the blacktop right back out of there,” Scirocco said. “That’s a big problem, we’ve dealt with it forever.”
Another problem comes with the patch’s compositional properties. The material will freeze quickly in cold weather.
“We have to keep the cold patch inside the garage to stay thawed,” Scirocco said. “Those guys are out there trying to patch in 10-degree weather. They’ve only got about 20 minutes before the stuff seizes right up. It doesn’t stay pliable, it just gets hard. . . . We try to pick an area and just go in and bang, bang, bang them off.”
Crews from the state Department of Transportation have been fixing plenty of streets and roads. Bryan Viggiani, a department spokesman, said 7,900 tons of cold patch had been used across the state through mid-February.
“That’s what we normally use in the entire winter in a normal winter,” he said. “We’ve still got a month to go in the meteorological winter. We’re estimating we’ll probably need 10,000 tons of that patching material for the entire winter.”
Local drivers are glad for any quick fixes right now.
Mary Reed of Princetown has been driving on Burdeck Street in Rotterdam this week and has seen pothole reductions. “They’ve patched up a lot of them,” Reed said as she left the Schenectady County Library. “It was brutal. It’s pretty dicey, it really slows you down — which is sort of a good thing.”
Bob McFarland of Schenectady, reading a newspaper inside the library, said he has noticed more holes in the road during the early parts of 2014. “They just seem to be a little bit earlier this year,” he said. “That’s part of life in the great Northeast.”
Scirocco said motorists can help themselves by keeping alert on the road. And watch out for puddles.
“Obviously, you can’t see what’s inside them, and that’s something people really need to be aware of,” he said. “If you drive through a puddle, you’re vulnerable to a major pothole in that puddle. That’s how it probably started to begin with.”
Don Villa, general manager of the 14-store Warren Tire Center chain in the Capital Region and North Country, sees holes in the roads and clients coming in for repairs.
“It’s brutal right now,” he said. “And you can’t blame it on anybody, it’s Mother Nature. They fix them, and just as quick as they fix them, they come back.”
Villa explained how driving into a pothole can equal major car damage.
“The first thing that will happen if they hit it real hard, they’re going to damage the wheel,” he said. “And with lower-profile tires that come with original equipment nowadays, it’s so much easier to damage the wheels and even ruin a tire just by hitting a pothole. Some of these that are on the roads right now, you could really do some front end damage.”
Motorists should be concerned about throwing wheels out of alignment, too.
“It’s something you should really do just after the season,” Villa said. “I think it might be a little early right now, but by the end of March and beginning of April, you really want to think about getting at least your alignment checked.”
Frank Gavin, the town of Niskayuna’s highway superintendent, said he and his crews have been monitoring about 10 town roads that are especially susceptible to winter weather problems.
“Birchwood Lane is a bad one, Hillside Avenue too,” Gavin said. “For traffic, I’d say they are the worst two. They haven’t been paved or reconstructed; they’re over 20 years old.”
Gavin said the town’s paving program — seven miles worth of pavement projects are conducted each year — helps keep potholes down. He also believes fewer cracks in the road at summer’s end means fewer potholes in the road at winter’s end.
“If you have an aggressive crack sealant program in the summer, you have less potholes over the years, so the most important thing is to crack-fill on any road,” Gavin said. “I buy a tractor-trailer load of it every year; drainage and crack-filling are the two things that keep a road in shape.”
Gavin added that potholes create problems for people who favor other forms of transportation. Runners and cyclists on pavement have to watch out for potholes, especially around dusk.
Highway chiefs say people should report potholes by calling their public works departments. New York State has a special pothole line, 1-800-POTHOLE (1-800-768-4653) to report road hazards.
People may call in little potholes that make a car rattle a little bit or giant holes that rattle a driver to the core. Viggiani said size does not matter. “We’ll take the small ones, too,” he said. “We’ve got to get them all at some point.”