Inside Seven
Current Issue: September 2014
Caltrans road crew members repairing potholes.

The Wonderful World of Potholes
by  Patrick Chandler
Issue Date: 03/2010

Caltrans maintenance crews work hard to fill in the blanks where they can.

Every day millions of motorists hit the road almost literally in the Los Angeles and Ventura counties, unknowingly causing wear and tear to the freeway system resulting in all sorts of problems. One of the most widespread is potholes.

Obviously motorists of any type do not intentionally seek out to damage the highway system like taggers or terrorists, but with nearly a million motorists on some sections of freeway structural distresses are likely to show in some places.

“It’s a combination of weather, cracks that are not sealed, weight of vehicles, the ADT (average daily traffic) on a particular road can affect the formation of potholes. There are a lot of factors involved,” said West Maintenance Region Senior Transportation Engineer Paul Crispi.

Birth of a Pothole

Water can wreak havoc on the underpinning of a freeway. “Sometimes there are culverts that go under the road that get cracked or misaligned, then the materials under the road start to wear away causing a depression,” said Crispi.

“When the road dries out the constant contraction and expansion of the roadway occurs and erosion starts to take hold,” said Silverlake Road Crew Supervisor Albert Bailon. “In some areas where drainage is not very good, especially near hills, water comes of the hills and forms puddles helping to create potholes.”

This winter has been very hard on the roads in the West Region. In Ventura County where heavy rains in January caused so many potholes on the Ventura Freeway (US 101), Caltrans had to post a “Rough Road Ahead” sign.

To remedy the potholes on US 101, 10 tons of asphalt was ordered. Within two weeks most of the work was completed, but crews are still filling in potholes wherever they find them.

The everyday pummeling of the roadway exacerbates the size of the potholes. “Tires hit the edge of the hole creating constant pressure,” said North Hollywood Road Crew Supervisor Oscar Ramos.

Maintenance Goes To Work

“Potholes are a symptom of an aging infrastructure but maintenance crews work hard to get them fixed right away,” said Deputy District Director of Maintenance Dan Freeman.

Caltrans maintenance crews work throughout the year to repair potholes. “Everybody is used to take care of the potholes. It is hard to patch the road the during the rain,” said East Region Maintenance Manager John Janton.

Maintenance of the highway system is an ongoing effort in every part of the state but with some of the most heavily traveled regions maintenance crews have short windows in which to work.

“It is difficult to close down a highway that runs through an urban area like Western Avenue (SR-213) to resurface. Street closures can disrupt communities and the nearby businesses,” said South Region Maintenance Manager Christine Anderson.

For instance, the I-10/I-110 Interchange in downtown Los Angeles presents a very difficult obstacle for maintenance crews. “Closing the interchange would be very disruptive. Approximately one million motorists drive through there everyday,” said Anderson. “The crews are able to get their work done, but with a shorter window of time.”

Even attempts to do night work in heavily traveled areas of Los Angeles are extremely difficult. “Maintenance work is restricted to early morning. But night work is hampered by unfavorable temperatures and humidity that the Southern California weather can bring. Cool and damp temperatures can slow the curing time of the material placed in potholes slowing down work,” said Anderson.

Occasionally maintenance crews can repair potholes with little disruption to traffic, but not all of the time. “Sometimes we can just pull over to the side of the road to repair a pothole or we may request for the CHP to create a traffic break if we have to work on the mainline,” said Ramos.

“Maintenance crews fill, repair, and patch potholes as quickly as possible,” said Freeman. “Our crews also want to ensure that traffic is not disrupted and that the conditions of the road remain safe for motorists and the road crew members.”

A typical road crew of seven or eight employees is responsible for much more than road repair. Crews are responsible for fixing guardrail, sweeping, vegetation control, painting graffiti, picking up debris, responding to emergencies, maintaining drainage, fixing the right of way fence along with the road repairs such as filling potholes and cracksealing.

Caltrans crews have to work with smaller crew sizes and an increasing inventory of freeways and highways making it very tough to dedicate a crew to one specific maintenance activity. It is very possible that with innovations in road materials that the occurrence of potholes maybe reduced lessening the need for lane closures making the road safe for everyone.