Bang! Pothole season's upon us

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Russell Singer of Highland Park had just pulled away from a traffic light at Butler and Main streets in Lawrenceville on Thursday night, moving at an estimated 10 to 15 mph, when he heard the sickening sound.

"Bang! I didn't even see it. [The pothole] was covered with snow," he said.

Both passenger-side tires on his 2004 Volvo were flattened by the 8- to 10-inch "pothole of doom," as he christened it. The bill came to nearly $600. The car was still being checked Monday for possible suspension damage.

In Western Pennsylvania, the whir of tires spinning through heaps of slush and snow has been replaced by the crunch of those same tires hitting potholes.

Our seasonal malady of cratered roads has arrived early and hard this year, aided by heavy snow and a near-constant bombardment of road salt.

Crews already weary from round-the-clock snow removal now face the task of trying to put cold patch, the equivalent of a Band-Aid, on potholed roads.

"It seems like they're everywhere," said Bob Crawford, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation's maintenance manager for Allegheny County. "It's just going to take time before we get to all of them."

A driving tour Monday found extensive carnage in the city and suburbs.

On McNeilly Road in the South Hills, sections of asphalt have peeled away to reveal an old brick street. On Frankstown Avenue in Homewood, four deep craters revealed sections of long-ago buried streetcar rail.

The Route 51 West End Bypass had several huge holes, turning the stretch into a challenging slalom course for drivers.

Parts of the Boulevard of the Allies near Schenley Park and Beechwood Boulevard in Point Breeze looked like moonscapes. On Beechwood from Fifth to South Linden avenues, driving at the posted 25 mph was gambling on a hasty visit to the garage.

It's going to get worse before it gets better, said Pete Rauso, co-owner of Lockhart Tire on the North Side, who has seen a burst of tire and rim damage since this month's huge snowstorms.

"I'm happy for the business," he said. "I feel sorry for the people sometimes."

Mr. Singer said as a frequent skier he often drives back roads in colder parts of the Northeast, including areas where bitter cold heaves up entire slabs of road. "Even those aren't as bad as the holes we have here in Pittsburgh," he said.

"Butler Street is pretty terrible. A friend of mine is afraid of getting pulled over for drunk driving because he's always weaving around the potholes," he said.

PennDOT's Mr. Crawford said crews were out at 1 a.m. Monday patching a bad section of Interstate 79 between Route 60 and Neville Island. Other trouble spots are Route 28, Route 51 south of Lebanon Church Road and Route 65/Beaver Avenue, he said.

Workers are being sent out whenever they get a break from plowing and salting. "Every chance we get we try to run guys out to plug holes," he said.

But with asphalt plants shut down for the winter, PennDOT and other municipalities mostly rely on cold patch, a mixture that usually gives only temporary relief. "You get moisture underneath, it just pushes it right back out," he said.

The department also plans to deploy vehicles that heat up an oil-and-stone mix and spray it into potholes, but the weather must be dry for that. He projected that because of the extreme winter, most asphalt plants won't go into operation until April.

Potholes on state roads can be reported by calling 1-800-FIX-ROAD (349-7623).

Pittsburgh public works crews, working from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 10 p.m. to 6 a.m., are focusing on potholes reported to the city through the 311 response line, at 412-255-CITY(2489) or www.pittsburghpothole.com. City potholes also can be photographed and reported using the iBurgh application for iPhones.

City and state officials urged those making reports to be as specific as possible, noting the lane, direction and nearby intersections and/or landmarks.

Pittsburgh Public Works Director Robert Kaczorowski described the pothole count on Monday as "bad. We're plugging away, though, and I'm seeing some improvements driving around here."

Motorists whose tires, axles and rims are damaged by potholes have little legal recourse, according to Rick Rosenthal, managing partner of the Edgar Snyder & Associates law firm.

State government can't be sued for vehicle damage caused by potholes; only for personal injuries, and only if the victim can show that the state had advance written notice of the pothole, he said. Municipal governments can be sued for vehicle damage, but claimants generally can recover only their insurance deductibles.

Because most municipal governments fight the claims all the way to court, "for most people it's not cost-effective," he said.

Mr. Rauso said drivers can improve their odds by keeping tires properly inflated. Cold weather causes a drop in pressure, and underinflated tires are more susceptible to damage.

He said he doesn't expect pothole season to peak until next month, when the spring thaw arrives.

"There's a lot of them out there," he said. "They're small ... now."


Jon Schmitz: jschmitz@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1868. Visit "The Roundabout," the Post-Gazette's transportation blog, at post-gazette.com. Staff writer Rich Lord contributed.


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