Tacoma has 2,118 miles of streets. Sometimes it feels like every one of them has a pothole.
“We’re never going to catch up with the amount of potholes we have in the city,” said Rae Bailey, the city’s street operations manager.
Call him the Pothole Czar.
The recently ended winter was one of the worst, according to Bailey and city statistics. And that means more potholes.
“The problem is probably 10-fold this winter to what it normally is,” said pothole crew supervisor Mason Moore.
On a recent cloudy day, Moore and his crew were finishing up a pothole fix on Pioneer Way.
Moore estimated he’s filled 65,000 potholes during his 18-year career with the city.
“I dream about them,” he said as he stood near a fresh square of asphalt marking the grave of a recently deceased pothole.
For Martie Hulse, potholes are a nightmare. Until recently, she had a block-long obstacle course of them in front of her house on East Fairbanks Street.
Moore and his crew were making repairs there this month.
“I’ve lived here for 12 years, and I’ve never seen the roads in this bad condition,” Hulse said. “It was awful. I would drive down the sidewalk to avoid the potholes.”
LACK OF RESOURCES
“It takes a lot of resources to maintain our street system, which unfortunately, we don’t have,” Bailey said.
The Pothole Czar said this while seated in his C Street office, the floor of which tilts like a ship at sea. The building, which dates from the 1880s, was once the city’s horse stables. It has been only somewhat upgraded from its horse and buggy days.
The city could fix more potholes, Bailey said, if it had the money.
From Nov. 1 to March 31, crews repaired 1,728 potholes at a cost of $297,429. In that same period, 10,315 potholes were temporarily patched for $243,830.
Residents made 695 pothole complaints between Nov. 16, and Feb. 28.
Bailey said the city receives 363 complaints on average for that time period, based on statistics from 2012 to present.
When a resident calls 311 to report a pothole, it will be patched within five days on average, Bailey said.
BUILD A ROAD
Street building isn’t high-tech, but it’s come a long way from Tacoma’s earliest days.
Still, Bailey estimates, half of streets in the city were built using techniques that date from the Model T era.
Until the 1970s, residential streets were paved with little more than 1 or 2 inches of oil and rock. It was merely an easy fix to control dust and mud, Bailey said.
A contractor the city uses to assess roadway health labeled half of residential streets in the city as poor or failing in 2015, Bailey said.
“I can’t maintain them because they’re dead,” Bailey said. Dead is the term he uses for streets that need complete rebuilding. At a certain point, it becomes hard to tell whether you’re driving on a street with potholes or on a dirt road bed that contains patches of pavement.
Today’s streets use a multilayer construction approach designed to withstand today’s vehicles and traffic volumes.
New streets and the drivers who use them go into a honeymoon period. Who doesn’t enjoy the smooth ride of a freshly paved street?
But even today’s road building methods have an expiration date — about 20 to 30 years, Bailey said.
There are two methods for stopping potholes before they begin, Bailey said.
The first is crack seal — think Botox for pavement. It’s those squiggly black lines drivers see on roadways. Crews use a rubberized asphalt to seal cracks before water can penetrate.
Streets 3 to 5 years old usually are treated with crack seal. Streets 9 to 12 years old get chip seal.
Chip seal — an asphalt, oil and crushed rock mix — is spread over problem areas like foundation on an aging diva’s face.
Bailey’s crews use one or the other approach on about 400 blocks of residential streets each year.
HOW THEY HAPPEN
It all begins with a crack in the street.
Water seeps in the crack and freezes. Ice’s natural expanding power forces the crack wider. Meanwhile, in a kind of tag team operation, water pushes up from beneath.
This past winter — with its relentless rains, high water table, freezes and thaws — became perfect pothole-growing weather.
Once a section of street becomes loosened, it’s a matter of time before it pops out and a pothole is born.
Timing is the big unknown.
“It can be several years before the pothole forms, or it can be tomorrow,” Bailey said.
“I’ve seen a pothole 3 feet in diameter where I’ve driven one or two days before and there was no pothole,” Moore said.
FILLING THE HOLE
The city’s permanent pothole crew has four employees. One or two temporary repair crews work at any one time, with two workers each. Moore supervises all of them.
It’s easy to tell which fix is which.
A permanent patch has four sides. A temporary patch just fills the cavity.
For a temporary fix, crews remove loose debris and then shovel in cold mix asphalt. They compact it by driving over it with their dump truck.
A permanent fix is more involved.
First, a square or rectangular section of pavement containing the pothole is cut out. Loose material and clay are removed.
If needed, the hole is filled with crushed rock. It’s then capped with 3 inches of hot mix asphalt and compacted with a roller.
Finally, joints are sealed with rubberized asphalt.
A temporary patch can last from a couple of months to years.
It would be nice to fix all potholes permanently, Bailey said. But crews can fix more in one day with temporary patches — 80 to 120 a day — compared with permanent fixes (eight to 12 a day).
City crews have been working six-day weeks to make a dent in the pothole list.
Drivers have mixed reactions.
“When they are waiting in traffic, they don’t seem too happy,” Moore said of drivers. “But when they drive by and see what we’re doing, they seem happy. We get a lot of thumbs up.”
To report a pothole in Tacoma:
Phone 311 or go to bit.ly/2nwHLWw and fill out the form.