Pittsburgh ponderously patching its pothole population

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The freeze-thaw cycle that helps to create potholes is long gone. The potholes are not.

Pittsburgh continues to get a steady stream of pothole reports from residents, and public works crews are out daily trying to erase the damage left by a bitter winter.

As of this week, they had responded to just over 9,000 of the 10,395 complaints filed since the start of the year, for a cavity clearance rate of 87 percent, according to figures provided by Mayor Bill Peduto’s office.

The numbers suggest that the crews are making progress. After logging more than 1,800 complaints in April and 1,900 in May, the city’s 311 hot line and website were on pace to receive about 1,200 this month.

A drive-by inspection of about 20 miles of city streets on Thursday also found significant improvement, with much patching completed but more to be done.

PG graphic: Pothole complaints
(Click image for larger version)

"We are trying to meet the mayor’s directive of getting pothole reports answered within three days,“ said Mike Gable, city public works director. ”I don’t know that we’re quite there yet but we’re getting better.“

What crews often encounter, he said, is more than a pothole — ”major areas of road failure“ that require extensive repairs. Crews also have been hampered recently by out-of-service trucks but at least one and usually two crews in each of the city’s six public works divisions are out every day patching holes, Mr. Gable said.

In addition to dealing with the hangover from a harsh winter, the city’s crews are trying to patch up a road network that is literally crumbling from years of neglect. Proper maintenance of the 866 miles of city streets would require repaving of 80 to 100 miles per year — Pittsburgh has not achieved that standard since 1999 and has usually fallen well short. Last year about 50 miles were resurfaced and this year’s plan calls for 40 miles to be repaved.

"Pick a road and it’s likely to have issues,” Mr. Gable said. Pothole patching will continue until the privately operated hot asphalt producing plants close for the winter, probably in mid-December.

Pennsylvania Department of Transportation crews also are out patching potholes daily, said Angelo Pampena, maintenance manager for Allegheny County.

"Overall, it’s a never-ending process,“ he said. ”After the winter that we had, there’s a lot of potholes out there. We will patch all summer long.“

Pothole calls to PennDOT’s 1-800-FIX-ROAD hot line peaked at 154 in February, falling to 101 last month. The department was on pace to get about 80 calls this month.

Crews were scheduled this week to patch Route 51 in the area south of Route 88; Hulton Road in Penn Hills; Pearce Mill Road in Pine; and other roads in South Park, Verona, Oakmont, Plum and Shaler.

In addition to patching, PennDOT crews will tear out pavement on decaying center-line joints on some roads, replacing 1- to 4-foot-wide sections of asphalt. Other roads will be seal coated, topped with a mixture of tar and chips, he said. Road repairs are done in-house by the same crews responsible for bridge washing, concrete repairs, landscaping, mowing and cleaning drain inlets.

PennDOT plans to pave 138.6 miles of state roads in Allegheny County this year, compared with 73 miles last year.

Motorists whose vehicles are damaged by potholes have limited recourse. The state cannot be sued for vehicle damage on its roads but drivers can file claims if the damage occurs on a municipal street.

When the city approves claims from drivers who carry collision coverage on their insurance policies, and their damages exceed their deductible, the city is only liable to pay up to their deductible amount. The remainder is paid via the insurance carrier. If the claimant does not carry collision coverage, or if the damages are below the collision deductible amount, the city is liable for the full value of the damage, said Margaret Vitale, claims administrator.

The city had 103 pothole damage claims through April 23 and more since then that haven’t yet been added to its database. Of the 103 claims, 17 were approved, 13 denied and 73 await disposition. The total paid out on the 17 approved claims is $5,451.

Jon Schmitz: jschmitz@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1868. Visit the PG’s transportation blog at www.post-gazette.com/Roundabout. Twitter: @pgtraffic. First Published June 14, 2014 12:34 AM

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