Some potholes in Pittsburgh are filled quicker than others

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In Pittsburgh's war on potholes, few have suffered more than Maxine Kribel.

On her morning drive to work, the Brookline baker rumbles over craters the size of her cakes. Each evening, she faces divots bigger than doughnuts.

And all day long, she relives her commute through her customers, fresh from their own spine-jarring ride on Brookline Boulevard.

"They just say, 'It's horrible out there -- when are they going to fix it?' " said Ms. Kribel, owner of Kribel's Bakery. "The city has come up a few times and done a little bit of patching. But the road is still horrible."

Ms. Kribel might be telling a different story if she worked just a few blocks away.

A Pittsburgh Post-Gazette analysis of pothole complaints between January 2012 and December 2013 shows big differences between city council districts, with some constituents waiting four times as long as their neighbors across town to get a hole patched.

In Brookline, which sits in Democrat Natalia Rudiak's council district, the median wait was two weeks, city figures show. But in the neighboring council district headed by Theresa Kail-Smith, the wait was just seven days.

That's despite the fact that Ms. Rudiak's constituents logged nearly twice as many complaints, or that three of the city's 10 most pothole-riddled neighborhoods are under her jurisdiction.

Ms. Kail-Smith's response? Well, someone has to be on top.

"If they want to start comparing, I can compare. I can bring it up every Tuesday," she said. "We have an excellent [public works] division, and we have a great public works assistant director. ... I think there's a multitude of things that could factor into this."

The city's figures make one thing clear: Pittsburghers care a lot about potholes. Just over 10 percent of calls to the city's 311 help line focused on the wintertime menace, with more than 8,000 complaints logged between 2012 and 2014.

Ms. Kribel's Brookline neighborhood leads the pack, with 737 complaints. Many of these focus on the rutted roadways of Brookline Boulevard and adjoining Pioneer Avenue, two thoroughfares residents say are in desperate need of repaving.

Her neighborhood is followed by Shadyside, with 353 complaints, and Carrick, which is also in Ms. Rudiak's district, with 349.

Pittsburgh's pothole mania shifts into high gear during March and April, when 26 percent of the year's complaints rush into the 311 center. From there, they're distributed to the city's six public works divisions, which assign crews to smooth out the roughest streets.

As Mayor Bill Peduto tackles the city's pothole-filling process, officials say he's looking to put data at the center of decision-making, removing paperwork and increasing accountability.

Mayoral spokesman Tim McNulty cited Negley Avenue as a recent success after a deluge of resident complaints pushed crews to take a closer look.

"A lot of those complaints were overlapping -- they knew that was a good place," Mr. McNulty said. "We're going to give them the tools to do their jobs."

Today the city Department of Public Works plans to pull all night-side employees and reassign them to daytime pothole duty, temporarily boosting the ranks by 55 people.

The mayor needs the help: The average pothole sits for nearly two weeks before being filled, complaint records show.

But even that would be an improvement for District 5, which includes Squirrel Hill and is represented by Councilman Corey O'Connor. His constituents wait almost four weeks to get a pothole filled, a figure the councilman didn't expect.

"I'm surprised we were that low," he said. "The topography in our district is the same as it is everywhere else in the city. It's clearly a question to look at in the system."

Every council member had a different theory why their district was different. They have busier roads? Their potholes aren't as big?

Several acknowledged that paperwork could be to blame. The 311 center can't mark a pothole as completed until it has received confirmation from DPW, adding lag time. Several officials also said a clerical worker for the DPW Division 3, which covers Mr. O'Connor's district, was on sick leave for a time, adding to the paperwork backlog.

Indeed, pothole closure rates vary widely among the six DPW divisions. Division 5, which covers Ms. Kail-Smith's district, has the best rate; Division 3 had the worst.

But Dan Gilman, who served as Mr. Peduto's chief of staff during his time on council and now represents District 8 himself, went straight for the political jugular. Blame former Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, he said.

"During the years of the Ravenstahl administration, it was made clear that projects were not meant to be done at different parts of the district," he said. "You saw it in paving, snow removal, potholes. You could see it in the number of workers assigned to districts."

That's vehemently denied by Rob Kaczorowski, the former director of public works under Mr. Ravenstahl.

"The people on the ground have nothing to do with that," he said. "I got more requests from council people. The mayor never gave me a street to do."

The numbers back Mr. Kaczorowski. Statistically, wards that voted for Mr. Ravenstahl during his 2009 re-election bid fared no better with potholes than those won by his opponents in the Democratic primary.

Which leaves another possibility: Some council members are just better at getting potholes filled.

Take Darlene Harris, city council president and the proud possessor of the quickest-filled potholes in the city: under one week. Ms. Harris partly credits that speedy service to her office's hard work, saying she makes two phone calls to public works for every pothole complaint she gets.

"I believe the squeaky wheel gets the oil. I think I've done that for 38 years," she said. "Sometimes being nice goes a long way."


Andrew McGill: amcgill@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1497.

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