Depths of winter, potholes

They hide on streets and lurk in parking lots.

Unsuspecting drivers may not realize their presence until they’re virtually on top of them. By then, it’s too late to avoid them, and another victim has been claimed.

They are potholes, and thanks to a persistent blanket of snow and deep freeze that has locked temperatures below 40 degrees for the better part of the past two months, they’re bigger and more prevalent this winter than in years past.

That means busy days for public works crews across the Grand Valley, their repair work a strain on local government budgets already struggling with revenue shortfalls.

It also means frustration for motorists who risk an appointment with an auto repair shop every time they venture onto the road.

Grand Junction Solid Waste and Streets Manager Darren Starr said this winter is proving to be one of the toughest on city roads in the past 10 years.

“It’s been a battle,” he said. “Just weather-wise, with all the moisture we’ve had, we’ve got some (potholes) where this is the third or fourth time we’ve gone back (to repair them).”

Potholes are nothing new this time of year, as snow melts, runs into crevices in the road and softens the surface. It’s the size and number of the craters, as well as the rate at which the same ones reappear, that separates this year from others.

That change is largely because of a thick cover of snow that has stuck around this winter, ensuring there is an ample supply of moisture that can seep into and damage local streets. Today marks the 60th consecutive day in which at least an inch of snow has covered the ground in Grand Junction, which is tied for the seventh-longest streak in the city’s history, according to the National Weather Service.

Valley residents are accustomed to snow disappearing within a matter of hours or days of hitting the ground. The problem this year, Starr noted, is temperatures aren’t warming enough to allow that. Instead, they rise just high enough to melt a little snow, then drop and refreeze the liquid. The freeze-thaw cycle means crews aren’t just filling holes in new locations. They’re filling those, plus ones that appear in the same spot again and again.

Starr said cold-weather towns such as Steamboat Springs don’t have that problem. He said whatever moisture that seeps into the ground stays frozen all winter, meaning crews there aren’t having to repeatedly fix the same potholes.

Starr said the more moisture there is and the deeper it sinks into the pavement, the greater the chance it can compromise the integrity of the underlying road base and the more work it creates for repair crews in the spring.

Palisade Public Works Director Frank Watt said the town definitely has a more noticeable problem with potholes this winter. He said crews are focusing on filling the ones that present the greatest hazard to motorists, including those that provide a sudden jolt to a vehicle or cause motorists to veer into another lane to avoid them.

Fruita Public Works Director Tom Huston, whose department spent its entire 2009 snow-removal budget clearing the city’s streets in the wake of the storm that struck in early December, said he expects to spend all $70,000 set aside this year for road maintenance. He said he’ll likely seek to transfer money from other areas of the city budget to cover extra expenses affiliated with pothole repairs.

“There’s going to be a lot more potholes to fix than we’ve had in the past,” he said.

Starr said Grand Junction usually uses 25 tons of pavement repair material during the winter to temporarily fill potholes and areas where utility lines have been repaired. Last week, though, the city received another 20 tons to get through the winter until the asphalt plants open in April.

In the meantime, at least one local auto repair shop is seeing a spike in business as a result of encounters between automobiles and potholes.

“We have definitely seen quite a bit more tire damage, wheel damage, alignment issues,” said Rodney Snider, owner of Scotty’s Muffler at Fourth Street and Pitkin Avenue.

He said drivers may not immediately notice some alignment problems and continue to drive their vehicles. Months later, though, a vehicle that’s out of alignment can create uneven tire wear and cause vehicle vibrations and the steering wheel to shimmy. He recommends that drivers who have questions after hitting a pothole take their vehicle to a repair shop, because many will do a quick check for free.

Snider said potholes can harm low-clearance vehicles in other ways, too, including damaging exhaust systems and oil pans.


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