December 2, 2021

Beware: Potholes up ahead

Winter weather helps create damaging road hazards

Jacob DeRochie/contributing photographer

A minivan hits a cluster of potholes along Clinton Avenue on Monday morning. Workers with the City of Cortland Department of Public Works have been patching potholes for about a month, which is earlier than usual, said department Supervisor Dennis Gallagher.

You’re probably familiar with the “KA-THUNK” of a tire hitting a hole in the road, a teeth-gritting experience that leaves one worrying about a flat tire or damage to the car’s struts.

Thanks to the recent extreme temperature shifts, more and more potholes are popping up — or down.

They are being filled weeks earlier than usual, said Dennis Gallagher, supervisor of the City of Cortland Department of Public Works.

Gallagher said the DPW workers have been out patching holes for about a month, whereas usually they don’t start patching until February. This is not necessarily a cost increase for the departments, because workers already work long shifts in the winter, he said, but it is a nuisance and can mean costly repairs for drivers.

Depending on the weather, Gallagher said, their patches may last a week or less. The crews use a hot patch, which is melted asphalt and intended to last a little longer than a cold patch, he explained, which is just loose oil and stone.

Potholes form when snow or rain seeps into soil below the pavement. The moisture freezes in cold weather, causing the soil to expand and rise. When warm temperatures return the soil to normal level, the pavement remains raised, creating a gap. Vehicles break the unsupported pavement when they drive over it.

Earlier this month, the temperature ranged from a record high of 60 to a near-record low of minus 9 in just about 36 hours. That’s as big a fluctuation as the pothole that nearly ate your Buick.

That can create a hole, and the “KA-THUNK” sound of hitting one, that we’re all too familiar with.

This all prompts road crews to be out and about putting in the hot patches, Gallagher said.

“It’s all done by hand in a little trailer,” Gallagher said.

“We have a heated box that heats it up.”

The roads hit the hardest are the “usual suspects,” he said: Clinton Avenue, the eastern side of Church Street, and the intersection of Port Watson and Main streets. They’re the more heavily traveled roads, especially intersections and turns.

Marathon Town Highway Superintendent Randy Ensign faces the same problem. “The intersections where there’s a lot of turning traffic and stuff like that,” Ensign said. “That’s usually where they show up.”

And sure enough, on Clinton Avenue on Monday, cars were avoiding a string of potholes lining the right hand side of the eastbound lane.

The temperature fluctuations continue today with the forecast calling for snow flurries and a high of 24, according to the National Weather Service in Binghamton, before temperatures drop to about 15 degrees overnight Thursday.

Ensign said he expects his crews to be out patching.

“It’s the thawing and freezing, the really warm days and then cold weather right after it, that’s what does it,” he said. “Just like we’ve got coming now.”