Many drivers prayed in recent months as one winter storm after another hammered one part of the nation or another.
Now comes the cussing.
It's pothole season in the USA, when drivers hear that dreaded thud-thunk as their tire drops into an unseen crater that wasn't there the day before.
With a particularly rough winter this year following several milder ones, this is a nasty pothole season. It's hitting motorists in the wallet and eating through the budgets of transportation departments like – well, like salt through ice.
Ben Haddon encountered a pothole on Connecticut Avenue in Washington, D.C., last week "that seemed to be growing in front of my eyes." After driving into it on the way to work, he noticed the car pulling to the right. The pothole had ripped a hole in the sidewall of his tire.
"After what seemed like half a day, the spare was on my car and I was off to work, wet, muddy, cold and (ticked) off. I made it to work safely and took my car to the local service station where I had to pay $250 to replace both front tires," he says. "I'm ready for summer."
Potholes are created when melting water mixed with a melting agent such as salt or brine works down into road surfaces through microscopic cracks and bigger fissures. It then repeatedly freezes and thaws, breaking up the pavement and causing a pothole as motorists drive over the spot.
The situation is made worse on most of the nation's roads because the pavement is already in such poor shape, says Leland Smithson, coordinator of the Snow and Ice Cooperative Program for the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials. "Everybody's driving on an aging infrastructure," he says. "Most of the pavement has outlived its design life, because everybody's been short on funds to take care of that infrastructure."
He says the main vehicle damage from potholes comes with damaged tires and rims, and suspension problems. "A lot of times, drivers don't even see them (potholes)," he says. "Or, they appear as just water sitting there but you don't know how deep it is."
Saju Thomas of Berkeley Heights, N.J., recently drove into a "massive" pothole. "I had to get two tires and a rim replaced," Thomas says.
In some states, higher than expected spending on pothole repair — and other winter storm spending — means deferring non-safety items such as mowing, brush and tree-cutting and roadside garbage clean-up.
The Michigan Department of Transportation, for instance, budgeted $88 million for winter maintenance this year. Through January, MDOT had spent twice as much as over the same period last year — about $79 million, compared to about $39 million. The agency projects that total winter costs will be $126 million to $140 million.
"We'd used 440,000 tons of salt through January, compared to 238,500 tons last winter, an increase of about 85%," says spokesman James Lake. This year, MDOT used more than twice as much sand – 96,690 tons compared to 44,485 – and nearly three times the number of overtime hours – 54,902 versus 19,207, Lake says.
• Vermont usually spends $20.6 million on winter maintenance and uses 87,500 tons of salt for the entire winter. So far, they've already spent nearly $20 million and used over 91,000 tons of salt. "We expect his year's pothole season to be particularly bad," says Scott Rogers, director of operations for the Vermont Agency of Transportation. "Cold temperatures will result in deep frost, which should result in a heck of a mud season/pothole season. Now that we're getting some significant amounts of snow, the spring melt could be more significant than we'd like, as well. Lots of frost and lots of water typically mean lots of potholes."
• Since 2010, Delaware has spent an annual average of $10.1 million on storm-response efforts; as of Feb. 19, the state has already spent $12.4 million. "This pothole season is worse than an average year due to the wide swing in temperatures and frequent precipitation," says Delaware Department of Transportation spokesman Geoff Sundstrom. "This means some emergency repairs have been taking place. However, they are often temporary in nature and may need to be redone later this year because permanent repairs often require warmer temperatures."
• Rhode Island has spent $13.5 million for winter operations this year, compared to the five-year average of $11.5 million for this point in the year. Last winter, drivers there made 463 claims to the state for pothole damage to vehicles from November 2012 through May 2013; this winter, there have already been 650 such claims since last November, says Rhode Island Department of Transportation spokeswoman Rose Amoros.