Going to pot: Philly potholes up 20% in 2018

Most people hate potholes.

Then again, most people don’t run a tire shop.

“Oh god, the volume has just doubled,” said Tom Tafe at Pinnacle Auto Repair and Tires in Bella Vista. “We just had a Bentley that just bent two rims.”

Bad potholes can mean good business if you make a living fixing bent rims or replacing tires with blown-out sidewalls. Business is usually good in late winter and early spring when the weather fluctuates above and below freezing. When the water that slips into small cracks in the pavement freezes, it expands, ripping gashes into the streetscape as it does.

Thanks to this year’s wacky weather, that freeze-melt-refreeze cycle has been stuck on a loop, and Philadelphia’s streets have suffered the consequences.

“It’s actually worse than I’ve seen in the past five years,” said Tafe, who, despite the financial benefits he gets, feels bad for his unfortunate customers.

According to Philadelphia Streets Department Deputy Commissioner Rich Montanez, the city’s roadways have seen a 20 percent increase in potholes compared to last year. “We’ve repaired over 24,000 potholes this year and are on pace to probably reach over 40,000 potholes,” said Montanez.

The costs go beyond busted rims and flat tires. Potholes don’t just hurt their victims in the wallet; they can literally hurt.

“I was going around a car that was double parked [on 20th Street], and I hit this pothole right before Wolf Street,” said James Gitto, a West Passyunk resident who runs a dog walking and watching company. “It had to have been almost a foot deep, so my whole front tire went into it, and I just went over my handlebars onto the street.”

“It felt like a trap,” he added, noting that he was lucky that none of the other cars hit him. “Not fun.”

Naylor Brownell knows pain — he’s a doctor. “One of the things we ask people, to help figure out how real their pain is: If they feel every turn and pothole [during the drive to the hospital,]” said the Rittenhouse resident. After slipping on his apartment’s icy steps last week and breaking his leg, Brownell can now attest firsthand to the accuracy of that diagnostic question.

“Every little jolt is like a shot up your leg,” said Brownell. And he felt a lot of jolts on his ride down Chestnut Street to and from the orthopedic surgeon’s office in University City. “It was pretty brutal; I’m not going to lie.”

Like Brownell’s wounds, time, and some preventative care should heal the city’s streetscape. Well-maintained roadways develop fewer cracks so regularly resurfacing the pavement is one of the only ways of avoiding potholes.

The city increased its repaving budget last year and will add a second crew this spring. Mayor Jim Kenney’s capital budget calls for $178 million over the next six years for roadway resurfacing. Philadelphia slashed its pavement spending during the financial downturn a decade ago, and the proposed increases would restore the repaving budget to pre-recession levels.

With the renewed funds, the Streets Department expects to resurface 75 miles this year, a big step up from last year’s 55 miles, and the 30 or so miles-a-year completed before that. The reduced street maintenance meant that Philly’s roadways were particularly susceptible to this winter’s rough weather.

In a few years time, the city hopes to get up to repaving 131 miles-a-year. That annual resurfacing mileage would allow the city to repave all of its streets every 15 years. According to Montanez, while major thoroughfares should ideally be repaved every seven to ten years, lesser-used streets can go upwards of 15-to-20 years between resurfacing.

Montanez says the city tries to respond to potholes reported through 3-1-1 as soon as possible. Still, with so many to fill, sometimes that can take some time. Not every gap in the pavement is considered a pothole — more shallow “wear-outs” may ruin your wheels just like a pothole, but they don’t get repaired the same way. And “ditches” are the responsibility of the utility companies that cut them, which can mean that they sit unattended for way longer than your average ice-caused crater in the pavement.

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