What Lies Beneath Philadelphia’s Pothole Epidemic

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POTHOLES have blosssomed in Phila. in the last few years. The reason? Drastic cutbacks in regular street repaving during the Great Recession. And we’re still not back to normal.

by Cassie Hepler
Pothole season is upon us as winter’s fury sinks its teeth into our roads.

But potholes have been getting worse in recent winters. And the problem is not caused by fiercer weather but by human neglect. In the end, it’s the motorists who pay the price when their tax dollars are not at work.

In a recent report, City Controller Alan Butkovitz issued a review of the City of Philadelphia’s Pothole Repair and Response found the number of potholes filled jumped from 14,451 in FY2012 to 35,341 in FY2016, a 145% increase.  Prior to FY2012, the annual average of potholes filled was 12,712.

The reason is simple: The Philadelphia Streets Dept. has missed its annual goal of paving 131 miles of road for almost the last decade, largely thanks to the Great Recession.

A pothole is a structural failure in an asphalt pavement, caused by the presence of water in the underlying soil structure that seeps through cracks in the surface. Freezing temperatures turn this water into ice, which expands, pushing the pavement and soil around. When it thaws, the water melts and drains away, leaving holes beneath the surface. When a vehicle runs over this weakened surface, it buckles – and voilà! There goes your wheel rim.

But pavement wears out. When it is young, it is less susceptible to potholes. As it ages, though, it is at risk of failure. So all roads must be repaved on a regular schedule. The ideal pace is 131 miles of paving per year.

Meeting this goal helps the Streets Highway Division, which is responsible for paving the streets, strengthen the road structure and reduce potholes. In FY2009, it recorded the most miles paved with 119. Since then, according to the Controller’s audit, the City hasn’t reached the halfway mark, reaching a low of 22 miles in FY2013.

FY2013 marked the same year the Highway Division’s budget was only $18 million. Its average annual budget over the last decade was $25 million.

Let a hundred potholes bloom.

“Steep budget cuts resulted in the City only to patch the problem rather than fix it,” said Butkovitz. The City has been playing catch-up ever since, he said.

As of Mar. 12, 2015 – that year being the latest covered in Butkovitz’s audit – the City had already filled more than 12,000 potholes on its streets and was promising to fill reported potholes in one to three business days.

That was under Mayor Michael Nutter’s administration. The ball is now in the court of Mayor Jim Kenney’s administration

“The controller’s report attributes the problem to budget cuts that took place during the previous administration when the city was in the throes of the recession. Every single city department, including Streets, faced these cuts. Those cuts curtailed the number of miles that Streets was paving,” said Mike Dunn, a spokesman for Mayor Kenney.

“Here’s the important part. The budget for paving increased in the last year of the previous administration and will continue to increase. The current 5-Year Plan calls for achieving the 131-mile paving goal within four years,” he said.

The current year’s budget allocates $20 million for repaving. Dunn declined to say how many miles Streets hoped to repave, saying the severity of this winter’s weather will play a determining role.

Dunn applauded the controller’s recommendations. But he added, “The city has a good track record of getting potholes filled on city-maintained streets – we normally average 85% of potholes filled within three days of the initial report. Within five days – one business week – we average 94% of potholes filled! The controller’s report found we averaged 78% of potholes [filled within three days] during an 18-month period, fairly close to our usual standard. The controller himself calls this 78% ‘commendable,’” he said.

The controller’s review found about 20% of potholes were filled within 4 to 49 days and less than 1% took more than 100 days to fill.

“Unpaved and poorly maintained roads have been key contributors to potholes across the city,” said Butkovitz. “They create hazardous and costly problems for residents and commuters.”

The average cost to fix one pothole is $22. That raises the question: how much does the average unfilled pothole cost the average motorist?

The Independent Insurance Agents & Brokers of America estimated the United States spends $37 billion a year on road improvement, 18% less than what is needed. During the five-year period 2009-2014, that body estimated an average of $5.4 billion a year in damage due to potholes.

Applying these numbers to this city, a Philadelphia driver pays $20 a year because of pothole damage on average. Of course, pothole repair bills don’t come in $20 chunks; let’s say instead that every 10 years, that driver will face a $200 repair bill due to wear and tear from potholes.

“This is a big challenge in a city with an aging infrastructure, and we need residents’ help on this. Citizens should report all street defects to 311,” said Dunn.

According to Butkovitz, while the response rate is commendable, there are areas to improve, including coordinating repairs on state roads with PennDOT. There were at least 50 instances where Streets repaired potholes on state roads.

“The City needs to hold PennDOT accountable for any potholes that go unrepaired beyond the standard response time,” said Butkovitz. “Our roads should not be subject to poor conditions just because another government agency is responsible for the maintenance.”

“PennDOT does not track tire claims,” said Rich Kirkpatrick, communications director for PennDOT. “We would note, however, that under state law, the state is not responsible for damages attributable to potholes. Potholes are considered the result of forces of nature.”

“We receive the claims but we do not pay the claims for potholes. There were 15 claims sent in for Philadelphia and 169 in the rest of the state up to the end of this year so far,” said Troy A. Thompson, press secretary for the Pennsylvania Dept. of General Services.

However, in some cases where potholes have resulted in personal injury, plaintiffs have been able to recover damages from states.

To view the city controller’s report, “Streets Dept. Highways Unit: Review of Pothole Repair and Response,” visit www.philadelphiacontroller.org.

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