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The Hole Story

If you feel like pothole season is longer than usual this year, you’re right

by Darryl McGrath on June 8, 2011

Yes, we know it’s almost strawberry season, and temperatures are in the 90s, but that really was a pothole you just drove over—and a big one at that.

Wheel-jarring reminders of last winter abound throughout the Capital Region, on major highways as well as residential side streets. The state Department of Transportation closed a southbound lane on I-87 between the Twin Bridges and Exit 12 in Saratoga County Wednesday to repair potholes. In Colonie, the town’s public works phone lines are ringing with complaints notably later in the year than usual, and in Albany, road crews are repairing some potholes on city streets for the second and even third time.

“We’re seeing the same issues all around the state that we’re seeing in the Albany area,” said Carol Breen, a New York state Department of Transportations spokeswoman. “We had all that snow, and all that rain.” The complaints about rutted highways, she said, are “definitely still coming in.” (The state’s pothole hotline: 800-POTHOLE; if the complaint is not on a state road, the DOT will refer it to the appropriate municipality.)

To understand how potholes could still be around almost until the Summer Solstice, consider the 10 winter storms in the region between December and early March, with several of them just days apart. Lesser snowfalls and bitter temperatures befell upstate New York in between the whoppers.

“Even those one-inch storms, two inches—that beats up the streets pretty good,” said Albany General Services Commissioner Nicholas D’Antonio.

In late January, a period of extreme cold, which the National Weather Service calls an Arctic blast, hit upstate New York and New England. Schools closed, Amtrak suspended service between Albany and New York City, and temperatures dropped to the 20-below-zero range.

When public-works crews can even find potholes in such conditions, they fill them with a sticky asphalt mixture known as “cold patch,” which is tamped into the hole for an emergency repair. But cold patch has one major problem: “As soon as you plow over it, it starts to break up,” said Colonie Public Works Commissioner Jack Cunningham. (Pothole complaints in Colonie can be phoned into 783-6292 or 783-2795.)

Spring brings the season of “hot patch,” the warm-weather pothole filler that distributors don’t have available until April 15 at the earliest and that public-works people await with the same eagerness usually reserved for opening day of baseball season. This year, late winter storms and then heavy rain in April and early May delayed the arrival of hot patch until the second week of May, Albany’s D’Antonio said.

Hot patch is best handled in small batches kept at a steady temperature, so most municipalities buy the stuff, although Albany is considering an $80,000 investment in equipment that would allow the city to make its own. Right now, Albany is going through three to five tons of hot patch a day. The city has stayed within the $200,000 budgeted for winter and summer pothole repair, and repairs are on schedule, but it may not seem that way because some streets have been repaired more than once.

“You’ll see a big difference in the next month, month and a half,” D’Antonio said.

Albany Common Council member Dominick Calsolaro (Ward 1) said that pothole repairs extending into June are “starting to press the point,” but he credits the DGS with being highly responsive to complaints. Calsolaro has had good luck reporting potholes by e-mail at generalservices@ci.albany.ny.us.

“I think it’s even better than calling, because that way you have a record that you sent the e-mail,” Calsolaro said. His own street, Claire Avenue, was just repaired this week.