Water-filled potholes line up along a street.
Houlton Public Works crews are working to repair the winter damage to town roads. These potholes are along Joseph Street. Credit: Courtesy of Kathleen Tomaselli

HOULTON, Maine — There are so many potholes on Houlton roadways that its public works department is going through 12 to 15 tons — from four to five truckloads — of hot asphalt a day to patch them.

To make the patches last longer, Public Works Director Chris Stewart thought rolling over hot asphalt mix after it was in the hole might pack it in better. But when he called around to find a roller to fit the front of the town’s sidewalk tractor, he discovered no one sells equipment that fits it.

That’s when he turned to the city of Presque Isle, which had built its own smaller version of the rolling machine.

“I’ve had a lot of calls about our roads, the potholes. This is the worst spring I’ve ever seen,” said Stewart during the Monday night town council meeting. “We are working on it. I completely understand how bad they are and I’m making a list.”

The Presque Isle roller was designed and built by now-retired public works employee Tim Gray to fit on the city’s Trackless sidewalk machine. Its success has attracted interest from national sidewalk machine manufacturers, including the Trackless company. Since springtime potholes can cost Maine towns thousands of dollars to keep roads passable, the sidewalk machine roller could be a cost-cutting solution.

Presque Isle Deputy Director of Public Works J.R. Howlett stands by the city’s specially made hot top roller designed by former mechanic Tim Gray. This water tank feeds to the front and cleans a special blade on the front roller, which scrapes used hot top away for a cleaner, firmer surface on road patches. Credit: Paula Brewer / The Star-Herald)

“We have also had another equipment manufacturer look at it as well as other towns,” said Dana Fowler, Presque Isle public services director.

Stewart decided to use the Presque Isle roller as a guide to build his own.

“We drove up to Presque Isle and took a bunch of pictures and tried to figure out how we could build one somewhat the same,” he said. “We got started on it, and it’s just about done. We got the water hooked up to it [Monday].”

The water sprays on the roller to keep it from sticking to the hot mix.

The combination of the new rolling machine and hot mix asphalt instead of cold patch will help keep the patches in the holes, Stewart said.

Cold patch can be applied in any temperature and is generally a temporary fix for smaller cracks and holes. Hot mix asphalt is a better option for a more permanent repair.

Initially, this spring Houlton public works crews used a cold patch for road holes, but now they are getting hot asphalt mix from Steelstone Industries of Houlton. The problem for Stewart is that Steelstone fills their own trucks first, leaving Houlton Public Works trucks last in line, he said.

In Presque Isle, before the hot mix asphalt plants open in spring, crews use what was purchased the previous fall and heat it up in a reclaim patch trailer, Fowler said.

“During this time, we might place an estimated 50-ton in the biggest potholes with a maximum of 4-ton per day,” he said. “Our reclaimer has a 4-ton capacity, and it can only heat one patch trailer load per day.” 

In the entire year, Presque Isle might use approximately 350-ton of patch, Fowler said.

If all goes as planned, the potholes in Houlton will be repaired within the next month, and then at the end of the summer Stewart plans to patch up the roads again going into fall.

Springtime potholes occur when moisture from rain or snow seeps into the groundwater below the pavement and gravel, often from poor roadside drainage, according to the Maine Department of Transportation.

As the temperatures drop, ice expands, pushing the pavement up; when it thaws, a cavity forms under the road. As heavy vehicles drive over these places, surface cracks appear and eventually the continued freezing, thawing and driving over weakened areas leads to potholes.

Perhaps a bigger issue going forward is the town Roads and Sidewalk Committee. Stewart said they might need to update board members because three or four members did not show for the last meeting.

If current board members are not interested, the committee needs new members to move forward, he said, emphasizing the repairs that must be done on Houlton’s deteriorating roads.

“I’ve been saying it for the past eight years. [The roads] are going downhill, going downhill and we are now in a deep hole,” he said. “We have to climb out. I presented a plan, and we need to act on it.”

Kathleen Phalen Tomaselli is a reporter covering the Houlton area. Over the years, she has covered crime, investigations, health, politics and local government, writing for the Washington Post, the LA...