Maine Drivers Dodge Potholes, Frostheaves After Long Cold Winter

Apr 17, 2014

There may have been fresh snow on the ground recently for some of us, but, believe it or not, we are now several weeks into spring, which means longer days, warmer temperatures, and yes, bad roads, especially bad this year after the long winter we've just had. The melting and re-freezing of ice and snow has wreaked havoc on paved surfaces, and caused huge numbers of pot holes and frost heaves, those are the ripple-like bumps in the road, also a result of the freeze-thaw cycle that marks the end of winter. The problem was brought into tragic perspective last month when a motorist was killed after losing control of her car after hitting a frost heave in Harrison. Meanwhile, throughout the state maintenance crews are working overtime to try to patch things up.

 It's the start of another busy day for Joe Bernard. He works for Portland's Public Works Department. For several weeks now - since well before the start of spring - he's spent most of his working hours driving the streets of Maine's biggest city armed with a shovel and a truckload of cold patch - a mixture of crushed rock and asphalt.

His mission: to locate and neutralize the city's many, many potholes.

"Still very crazy. Very busy right now," he said as he shovels. "I worked Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays from 7:00 in the morning until 7:00 at night, and one weekend I can recall this winter, we went through 21 tons of what we call QPR - kind of like cold patch, as you know it - and we went through 21 tons in weekend. So, if that gives you any idea."

Rte-35-Harrison-Road-sucks copy"We're certainly mindful of the fact that we have to maintain our roads and we have to provide basic services," said Portland's Public Works Director Mike Bobinsky.

Bobinsky said state law demands that municipalities repair potholes within 24 hours of them being reported by the public.

Although last winter produced more snow in Portland, Bobinsky said this year's winter was more prolonged, and, as a result, took a greater toll on both the city's winter budget - which overspent by 40 percent - and many of the city's roads, especially the ones that didn't get repaved last year.

This year, he expects Portland's maintenance budget will need to draw from capital funds to keep the roads in repair. He admits patching is just a temporary solution, a band aid, which he why he said efforts are being made to provide a more permanent fix to the roads - in other words, more paving.

"The city over the last couple of years has increased its investment in pavement management," he said, "and the outcome of that is we have now a more steady investment in basic overlays of our city streets."

Public works departments aren't the only folks being kept busy by the poor state of the roads. Bob Burns is a technician at 3G's Tire and Auto service in Portland's East Bayside neighborhood.

"Definitely double the business this year," he said. "Definitely - the roads are really bad. We're seeing a lot of rim damage, we're seeing a lot of sway bar link damages, struts, shocks, tie rods."

"It's costing motorists, on average, $296 per year in added maintenance costs, due strictly to bad roads," said Maria Fuentes, executive director of the Maine Better Transportation Association, a non-profit that advocates for improvements to the state's infrastructure.

On top of extra car repairs, she said there's also the cost of lost mobility and missed business opportunities, not to mention the added safety risks associated with bad roads. Quoting a recent national study, Fuentes said the cumulative statewide vehicle operating costs for Mainers is more than $300 million. It's not surprising then that the state of Maine roads stack up pretty poorly compared to the national average.

"We look primarily at Maine DOT and federal Highway Administration data, and we have found that 46 percent of our prinicipal arterials had poor pavement, compared to 30 percent nationally," Fuentes said. "In terms of our minor arterials that are considered poor, we have 66 percent compared to 48," while 91 percent of Maine's major rural collector roads - serving local areas - are in poor state, compared to 67 percent nationally, she said.

Furthermore, when it comes to federal funding for highway maintenance, Fuentes said Maine is at a disadvantage because of its big size and small population.

Ted Talbot is spokesperson for the Maine DOT, which oversees 8,500 miles of roads. Unlike municipalities, he said the state's highway maintenance costs are drawn from one large, year-round budget.

Meadow-Rd-LaGrange copy"So when we go over, as everyone has as far as budgets go this winter due to the snow plowing and the ice events, we'll find ourselves potentially having to cut back on some spring activities in the way of signage, culvert repairs, to help make up for the shortfall," Talbot said. Which means less money available for things like signage clearance and culvert repairs.

To raise awareness of bad roads across the state, the Maine Better Transportation Association recently launched its 2014 Worst Road in Maine competition.

So if you have a road in mind, visit the MBTA website for entry details.

The contest closes May 15, and the winner will receive $296 - which should pay for one year's extra car maintenance and repair costs for the average Maine motorist.

Photos by Tom Porter and Maine Better Transportation Association.