Rough road ahead

ESCANABA – With warmer temperatures comes an increase in the number of potholes on streets. For those responsible for filling these craters, this spring may be a very bumpy road.

“I think we’re going to have an above average year because of the frost,” said Escanaba City Engineer and Director of Public Works Bill Farrell.

Potholes form when water seeps into the soil below the surface of the road. When temperatures drop, this moisture freezes causing the ground to expand and push the pavement upwards. As temperatures rise and the frozen ground thaws, the ground level lowers again, but the pavement may remain elevated, causing a gap. When cars drive over these sections of weakened pavement, the pavement cracks and collapses into the hollow space forming a pothole.

Even sections of pavement that don’t form potholes immediately could lead to craters in the future, if the roadway cracks enough to allow additional water underground.

“I think that we can see more cracking of the pavement, which leads to potholes,” said Farrell.

Extremely cold temperatures this season led many storm sewers to freeze and water to back onto roadways. City crews are actively trying to thaw these storm sewers to prevent more water from gathering on roads as snow melts this season.

“We’ve used our steamer quite a bit more than the last few years. Usually it’s hit and miss if we take it out at all, but this year we could be running it everyday if we had the manpower,” said Farrell.

In Gladstone, three storm sewers were still frozen Thursday. The roads that are experiencing storm sewer freezes, however, are planned as future reconstruction projects in the city.

“They’re on streets that are rough anyhow, so when we fix the streets, we’ll address those issues all at one time,” said Gladstone Public Works Superintendent Barry Lund.

At the county level, storm sewers are not an issue, but frozen culverts have caused water to back onto roadways in some places.

“Typically this time of year if we steam the (culvert) pipes they stay thawed, but this year, we have some we’ve probably steamed five times,” said Jody Norman, interim manager of the Delta County Road Commission.

Friday was the first full day of road patching for the road commission. Like the cities, the road commission fills potholes with “cold patch,” a substance made of asphalt and a binding agent. The initially sticky material hardens on its own and can be applied without adding heat, but application in cold weather can be difficult.

“It’s been too cold. The patch is nearly impossible to work with when it’s cold out,” said Norman, adding that the cold patch used to fill potholes is easier to work with when temperatures are in the high 20s or 30s.

For the road commission, cold patch costs $117.50 a ton. Each road crew puts down an average of 4 to 6 tons of cold patch a day, and in a typical season the commission uses around 120 tons – this year isn’t typical.

“I can’t even guess,” said Norman, when asked how much cold patch he expected the commission would need for potholes this spring.

Once April begins, the commission will stop running night crews and more employees will work during the daytime hours. The crews will also be split into two groups working 10-hour days. One set of crews will work Monday through Thursday and the other will work Tuesday through Friday. This arrangement allows the road commission to cover as much area as possible with the workforce and resources it has.

“After this spring, I think it’s going to come down to a maintenance summer, fixing what was damaged this spring. We just can’t afford to do anything else,” said Norman, noting that any projects the road commission had already committed to would continue as planned.

The City of Escanaba – which already attempted to get a “State of Emergency” declared due to waterline freeze ups and other issues related to frost and an abnormally cold winter – has been out patching roads whenever temperatures permit.

Because the state requires a minimum of $13.7 million in damages before a “State of Emergency” can be declared, counties across the Upper Peninsula are requesting that cities document the damages incurred this winter and any costs related to the spring thaw that could contribute to the emergency declaration.

“We are going to track costs a little differently for potholes this year to see if it really has been a more expensive year for pot holes,” said Farrell.

“It’s too early at this point to say that’s what’s going on but we all assume that’s what’s going on,” he added.

Gladstone began filling potholes Wednesday. According to Lund, on a typical year the city begins filling potholes around March 1, but the continued deep freeze that gripped the area did not allow the ground to begin thawing.

“Our pot hole season is just getting started,” he said.