A Monster New England Winter Leads to Monster Road Problems

April 7, 2008

With a bone-jarring jolt, Juanita and Leon Smith’s Volkswagen Beetle bottomed out rounding a corner on a rural two-lane road in Lincolnville, Maine, that seemed more appropriate for a horse-drawn wagon than their car.

As oil poured out of the punctured oil pan, the engine froze up and the Smiths’ car sputtered to a halt on Route 52 in the small midcoast town next to Camden. The insurance company wrote the car off as a total loss.

Across New England, the monster winter has turned roads into monster problems. Motorists are finding out the hard way that potholes and frost heaves are big and numerous following a winter with record snowfall amounts — nearly 200 inches in places — and thaw-and-freeze sequences that left many roads a mess.

“The road had cracks and holes and heaves all over it,” said Juanita Smith, recounting the mid-March incident. “It looked like an earthquake had opened up the road.”

New Englanders know all too well what spring can bring as roads swell up and break apart when moisture seeps into road cracks and freezes and thaws while being pounded under the heavy weight of vehicles.

In Maine, the state Department of Transportation will spend a record amount on pothole repair this season. Through March, it had spent $3.1 million, just shy of the record $3.2 million spent in the winter of 2005-2006.

“We’ve had a dozen calls from different regions of the state all proclaiming their road as the worst,” said spokesman Mark Latti. “The worst road is generally the one you drive on a regular basis.”

“The reality is it’s been a record-breaking year — both for snowfall and also for potholes.”

While potholes are an annual rite of spring, this year’s are the worst that Martin Krauter, the acting Fryeburg town manager, has seen in his 25 years in municipal government across Maine.

Drivers have to slow down to a crawl and swerve this way and that to avoid the holes — or risk knocking their vehicle out of alignment or losing a muffler. A few weeks ago, four cars blew out tires within minutes of each other on a particularly bad pothole, Krauter said.

In Jericho, Vt., employees at a country store one night witnessed a dozen cars hobble into the parking lot with popped tires — some had two blown tires — from a massive pothole described as 3 feet wide and a foot deep.

Things are so bad in Vermont that Gov. Jim Douglas recently announced a $3 million program dubbed “Operation Smooth Ride” to fix up roads damaged by the winter’s extreme weather. Vermont Transportation Agency workers are reporting terrible conditions statewide.

“From the top of the state to the bottom of the state, this is the worst winter they’ve seen, if not ever at least in the last 10 or 20 years,” said spokesman John Zicconi.

In Massachusetts, road problems started showing up earlier than usual, said state Highway Department spokesman Adam Hurtubise.

“The earlier temperature extremes this year got pothole season started earlier this year,” he said. “Earlier tends to mean a little bit more.”

All this comes at a time when municipal and state budgets are stretched to the max with tight revenues and a winter that has depleted snow-removal budgets. Plus, the cost of pothole patching has gone up with the rising price of petroleum-based tar.

“This would all go away if we could spend an unlimited amount of money on them,” said Krauter, the Fryeburg town manager. “But I know the town doesn’t have an unlimited amount of money, and I suspect the state doesn’t either.”

The roads got so bad this winter in Lincolnville that residents submitted a petition asking selectmen to not submit money owed to the state until the DOT fixed the problems.

“They stink,” said Andy Young, a Lincolnville contractor who blames the bad road conditions on both the rough winter and years of neglect. “Pathetic would be the best word to describe it.”

At Century Tire in Portland, assistant manager Ricky Chambers said bent wheels and blown tires are part of the price of living in New England.

“But I’d rather deal with the potholes than with the hurricanes,” he said. “I’d rather have a bent wheel than a house that’s destroyed.”

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