CHICAGO (AP) - This merciless winter is taking a heavy toll on the nation’s
pipes and pavement, breaking hundreds of water mains that turn streets into
frozen rivers and opening potholes so big they snap tire rims and wheel
axles like Popsicle sticks.
Iowa to New York and Michigan to Georgia, the relentless cycle of snow and
bitter cold is testing the strength of the steel-and-cement skeletons on
which our communities are built, the patience of the people who live there
and the stamina of crews whose job is to keep the roads safe and the taps
after the weather eases, state and local governments will be left with steep
repair bills that could affect their budgets for months to come. In scores
of cities, once-smooth roadways have been transformed into obstacle courses
by gaping potholes that can seriously damage passing vehicles but are too
large to avoid.
York City crews filled 69,000 potholes in the first five weeks of the year -
nearly twice as many as the same period in 2013. In Iowa, a Des Moines
official said the city has never endured so many broken water mains in the
100-year history of its water utility.
Michigan’s top transportation official warned that the icy conditions would
create more potholes than “we’ve probably ever seen in our lifetime.”
Busted water mains have created the most dramatic scenes - and the greatest
challenge for repair crews, who must dig into rock-hard ground to reach
pipes that are up to a century old and cannot withstand the pressure exerted
by earth that shifts as it freezes.
week a broken water main in Detroit flooded several blocks, trapping cars
that included a taxi. The cab driver had to be plucked out by rescue
fireman came and got me out - put me on his shoulder,” Michael Hooks said.
“Thank you, Detroit firemen.”
western Illinois city of Moline has had 61 water main breaks so far. That’s
10 more than anyone there can remember and a staggering number given that
the community has just 240 miles of water lines.
repairs are made all the more difficult by dangerous subzero temperatures
that freeze soil down to a depth of 3 or 4 feet.
crews out there, their coveralls are freezing solid,” said Greg Swanson,
general manager of Moline’s utilities. At times, their pant legs get so
stiff, they can’t even bend their knees. “They get in their trucks to warm
up a bit, and they just stay with it,” he said.
Because the ground is so rigid, leaking water often does not escape directly
above the busted pipe, but travels hundreds of feet before finding a soft
spot or an opening, occasionally shooting into the air like a geyser,
only that, but the ground is so hard that the same digging machines that can
normally expose a pipe in less than an hour have to scrape and claw for 11
hours or more to do the same job.
contractors say they’ve never seen anything like it,” said Doug Dunlap, a
village trustee in the tiny Illinois community of Lyndon.
Compounding the workers’ woes are parked vehicles that are difficult or
impossible to move because water that rose to their bumpers has turned to
had tires that wouldn’t spin because they were in a huge block of ice, and
we had to chop the ice until they could get out,” said Lenore Joseph,
describing a row of cars on her Chicago street that looked like so many bugs
trapped by flypaper.
less dramatic but especially aggravating are all the potholes, which form
after water seeps into cracks in the pavement, turns to ice and expands.
Chicago’s potholes are multiplying by the thousands. In just the first six
weeks of this year, the transportation department said crews - working
around the clock - have dumped some 2,000 tons of patching material into
more than 125,000 potholes. The city is almost certain to fill more than the
625,000 potholes patched last year.
cost of the extra works mounts quickly. In Moline, for example, the team
that handles the water mains has in just the last two weeks clocked 300
hours of overtime out of a budget that allotted 1,300 hours for the entire
Michigan State Transportation Director Kirk Steudle said an extra $30
million, a third more than budgeted, is needed to pay for the near-constant
snowplowing. The cost and usage of salt has doubled in just a year.
proliferation of potholes exposes what experts have long said: Many of the
nation’s roads are in such poor shape that they are more vulnerable to
“Many cities have ignored the minor cracks and potholes, and now they’re
getting big,” said Steve Schlickman, executive director of the Urban
Transportation Center at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
only that, but the rapid repairs may actually make conditions worse. Munir
Nazzal, an assistant professor of civil engineering at Ohio University, led
a study that found patching asphalt only stays in place for a matter of
weeks, days or even hours before traffic scatters it. And snowplow blades
can actually fill potholes with snow, where it melts, seeps into the road
surface and freezes.
“They’re not solving the problem at all,” Nazzal said.
Cabello has seen that for himself. “It’s really bad out there,” said Cabello,
manager of a Chicago tire shop that is welding far more broken rims than he
can ever remember. “The other day I welded a rim and 20 minutes later the
customer drove by and hit” another pothole right in front of the shop. The
axle broke, and the car had to be towed away.