For most Mainers, pothole-riddled roads are an irritating but expected symptom of a spring that carries quick temperature swings and rain.
While last winter wreaked havoc on Bangor’s roads and led to more than 300 reports of potholes, this year has brought comparatively fewer potholes so far. But winter isn’t over yet, warned Bangor Public Works Director Aaron Huotari.
The city received 349 pothole reports last season through mid-February, 310 of which were urgent pothole reports, according to Huotari. So far this season, the city has received only 74 reports — 39 urgent and 35 non-urgent. Residents designate whether the potholes are urgent or non-urgent.
Driving over potholes can damage a vehicle’s tires, alignment, suspension and shocks, leading to costly repairs. In 2021, vehicle damage caused by potholes cost American drivers $26.5 billion, with an average price tag of nearly $600 per repair, according to a AAA study.
“That’s a huge difference and I’d love to take credit for it, but it’s really all about the weather,” Huotari said. “Last year we had some really cold weather followed by some really warm weather and a bunch of rain that broke up the tar. We haven’t had that so far this year.”
Rapid temperature fluctuations coupled with water on the road, either from rain or melting snow, are what cause potholes to form and worsen, Huotari said.
The force of cars driving over wet roads pounds water into cracks and existing potholes. When that water quickly freezes overnight, the ice expands in those seams, further damaging the road. It also ruins any asphalt patches the city had placed over the potholes as a short-term solution until the road can be resurfaced entirely.
The material used to patch potholes during the winter is a special type of asphalt mixed with polymer that stays pliable without needing to be heated, then hardens when packed into a hole.
“It isn’t the ideal material because it doesn’t set up hard. It stays pliable and comes out of the holes a lot easier,” Huotari said. “Ideally, you put in this cold patch to get you through the winter, then in the spring you have a piece of machinery that grinds down the asphalt and lays a new layer of hot asphalt on top.”
By this time last winter, the public works department had purchased 136.8 tons of pothole patching material. At $125 per ton, it cost the city $17,100, Huotari said.
The city has purchased 70 tons of the patches so far this year, which cost $130 per ton, or $9,100 total.
“Last year it seemed like we’d fill in holes, then we’d get rain and the vehicles would pound the water right into the patch and break it up,” Huotari said. “We’d patch things in the morning and by the afternoon there’d be a hole again.”
While public works crews patch potholes as temporary fixes, Huotari hopes adopting a new infrastructure tracking software will help the city make more informed paving decisions that will ultimately lead to longer lasting roads with fewer potholes.
Today, public works uses “windshield surveys,” where crews drive around the city to assess the state of various roads. While this has worked for decades, Huotari said the method is subjective and makes it difficult for the city to gather data on the condition of its roads to help make informed paving decisions later.
The new system will assess each road objectively using an Army Corps of Engineers standard, Huotari said.
“Short term, it might not make a difference to the number of potholes, but in the long run, we’ll be making smarter paving decisions with taxpayers’ dollars that will last longer,” he said. “All the decisions you make on a section of road determine what the lifespan is going to be.”