Brian O'Neill: We're proud of potholes, as others had better see

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News flash: Pothole complaints top 6,100 in the city this year.

That's a new record! Kudos to all the anonymous patriots who called Pittsburgh's 311 Center to report potholes in just the first three months of our whipsaw weather year. We're already 2,000 tire-busters ahead of 2013 -- for that entire year.

But we must do better.

If there's one thing Pittsburghers pride themselves on -- and Lord knows there isn't only one -- it's our being the nation's unofficial pothole capital. Rege Cordic, KDKA's legendary morning host, announced way back in 1965 that Pittsburgh would outshine the New York World's Fair with its first annual Pothole Festival.

Mr. Cordic was kidding, but we're reminded on every drive that motoring around town isn't for the timid. A Post-Gazette call for pothole stories from readers in January had one saying his next car would be a hovercraft or a tank. Check out the official city map -- it even looks like a pothole.

We never stop complaining about them, but is there not also a peculiar pride in our perennial plague? It takes a certain toughness to navigate the terrain, and if you don't like it you should move to a smoother place where only wusses drive, bub. Don't let your bumper hit the pavement on your way out.

Yet lately I've seen alarming reports that Pittsburgh isn't even in the conversation when experts talk about bumpy rides. Last October, TRIP, a national transportation research group in Washington, D.C., named "America's Roughest Rides'' and the Pittsburgh region didn't make the top 20. The Sun Belt somehow dominated. The Los Angeles/Long Beach/Santa Ana region led with 64 percent of the major roads rated in poor condition. Places such as San Diego and Tucson also topped 50 percent.

A 31-page report and Pittsburgh wasn't mentioned once. When I called TRIP, I was told only 27 percent of Pittsburgh's major roads were poor, another 21 percent mediocre. We ranked a middling 37th among the 75 large urban areas. Meantime, Philadelphia ranked 22nd worst with 36 percent of its major roads in poor condition. Among smaller urban regions, Scranton ranked 17th worst with 32 percent. Could it be we're not even the bumpiest burg in the Keystone State?

Understand, please, I don't want lousy roads in Pittsburgh. As long as they are, though, we should see proper acknowledgment of our collective ordeal. The city has only enough money to pave 27 miles of road this year when it needs to pave 70 to 80 just to stay even with routine maintenance. That's like a couple of drops of Clearasil on an acne-scarred face.

It turns out, though, that this national report may have driven around our potholes. In covering only major roadways, the TRIP report would miss much of what the city's 311 system's complaints are about.

"It's the road you get on after you leave your neighborhood,'' Will Wilkins, TRIP's executive director, said of the type of roadway covered in this study.

Its 2011 data also can't reflect the winter that Pittsburgh and so many other regions just endured. Nor is its focus on potholes. The Federal Highway Administration's pavement rating index comes from monitors that calculate the roughness of the roads over which they travel.

That's why California's clogged highways, beat up by all those vehicle miles and likewise lacking the money for routine maintenance, scored badly. The average Los Angeles motorist pays $832 more in vehicle maintenance each year because of that. The average Pittsburgher (who drives fewer miles) pays about half that, $432.

Maybe that shows we're good at avoiding potholes. That doesn't mean they're not there. It could be the ruts hereabouts are fewer but "more catastrophic,'' Rocky Moretti of TRIP allowed, and thus look worse through the windshield than the more uniformly worn roads in drier climes. Mr. Moretti has never seen a study that attempted to calculate which place has the worst potholes.

So we Pittsburghers can still safely think of ourselves as extraordinarily burdened, because no hard data says we're not.

I say we treat this as we do the St. Patrick's Day Parade. Organizers have bragged for decades that Pittsburgh has the largest parade outside of New York City. That might shock revelers in Boston, Chicago, Savannah, Ga., and other cities making a similar claim, but who's going to put the effort into deciding who can legitimately shout "We're Number Two!"?

Next time you're driving and hit a hole deeper than the national debt, go ahead and swear Pittsburgh is the *#@! capital of potholes. We're definitely one of them.

Brian O'Neill:boneill@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1947.


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