Wichita's city crews are on pothole patrol

City of Wichita street maintenance worker David Palmitier fixes potholes on 27th Street South between McLean and Seneca on Tuesday. (Jan. 21, 2014)
City of Wichita street maintenance worker David Palmitier fixes potholes on 27th Street South between McLean and Seneca on Tuesday. (Jan. 21, 2014) The Wichita Eagle

Wichita’s streets chief, Joe Pajor, has the city’s ultimate trivia question: How many potholes did city crews fill over the winters of 2012 and 2013?

Zero? 2,500? 5,000?

The answer is a staggering 101,810, according to the city: 47,851 in a relatively dry 2012 and 53,959 in the snowy winter of 2013.

City officials are preparing for the worst this year – after a messy December and with forecasts of a messier February looming – although January has been slow for pothole repair.

Wild temperature fluctuations are the concern.

“Potholes on our streets are a problem throughout the year,” said Pajor, “but they’re especially a problem this year with the freeze/thaw cycles we’re seeing. Even without the snow and ice.”

It’s the same story across the Midwest, said Jim Camoriano, a State Farm spokesman in Columbia, Mo. Pothole-related claims are way up.

“We’re seeing a significant increase, about double what we normally see,” Camoriano said. “It’s been happening earlier, because the main culprit is the freezing and thawing cycle we’ve seen. In the area, we have 50 or 60 one day, and then 10 degrees the next day, and it just wreaks havoc on the roads.”

Here’s how: Frost causes the dirt to expand – “raises it,” Camoriano said – under and around asphalt roadways. That causes the roadways to crack, allowing moisture – melted frost, snow, rain – to infiltrate those cracks and expand. Then cars traveling over the pavement begin breaking off chunks of it, setting the stage for those large craters that eat up tires, rims, ball joints and other essential car parts.

How the city responds

The city is on pothole patrol. January hasn’t been too bad with 409 potholes to date. Last week, the city took 25 calls from citizens about potholes.

Six crews combed the city Tuesday for more potholes, although Pajor said a lot of the damage from the last round of winter weather has been patched.

Most of the city’s focus will remain on arterial streets.

“The arterials are always the ones we spend the most time on,” Pajor said. “Arterials carry much more traffic and higher-speed traffic, and that makes them a higher priority for us.

“On a typical commute,” he continued, “you’ll spend relatively little time on residential streets and most of it on arterials, so the distance traveled and the traffic speeds are going to be greater on the arterials.”

But that doesn’t mean the city won’t fix residential potholes – in fact, once the city’s notified of any pothole, it becomes legally liable for any damage a motorist incurs in that pothole, Pajor said.

So city staff welcomes pothole reports from the public.

“Number one, people need to understand that we appreciate any calls, because it lets us know that someone thinks the hole is significant enough to take the time to make the call,” Pajor said.

Anyone who spots a problem pothole can report it to the city at 316-268-4422.

The city’s policy is to patch the hole immediately: a temporary patch at first to get by – a common tactic in the Midwest, State Farm officials said – and then a permanent fix when the weather allows.

“We’re going to get out there and get it addressed once they call, hopefully within an hour or two,” Pajor said.

Anatomy of a pothole accident

State Farm studies indicate the average auto damage from a pothole bump is $300 to $700. Here’s what most drivers don’t know, according to Camoriano: Most car damage caused by a pothole, except tires, is covered by collision policies.

“I’d say that’s about right,” said Shawn Smith, manager of Firestone Complete Auto Care, 2424 N. Greenwich Road.

Smith said most of the problems his shop has seen this winter come from “slide-offs into curbs, things like that.”

“I can’t say that we’ve had a rash of customers coming in,” Smith said.

Avoiding the hole is the best strategy, although State Farm advocates swerving only in situations “where you’re not darting into another lane of traffic,” Camoriano said.

If you’re forced to take on the pothole, brake first, he said.

“A rolling tire does better, damage-wise, than a tire that’s skidding over a pothole,” Camoriano said.

If the jolt can’t be avoided, “pay careful attention to how your vehicle immediately responds,” he said.

“We really encourage people to know their deductible,” Camoriano said. “If your damage is $600 and your deductible is $500, is it worth it to you to file a claim?”

If the damage is structural – struts, wheels, rims, tie rods, ball joints – get it fixed.

Another option is the one Pajor referenced – file a claim for damages against the government that maintains specific streets.

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