May 4, 2016
El Niño rains have faded, but they’ve left behind more than reservoirs brimming with water: Potholes.
Thousands of ’em, from San Jose and Santa Cruz to Oakland and Concord.
Cities across the Bay Area are grappling with the biggest pothole outbreak in at least five years. San Jose crews filled 4,228 potholes from January through March — nearly 1,100 more than a year ago over the same period. And in Oakland, where fed-up drivers recently plugged holes on West Grand Avenue with chunks of bricks, the city will soon embark on a six-week blitz to repair nearly 3,500 potholes.
“The weather — damn, you, El Niño! — has exacerbated road conditions everywhere,” said motorist Tim Riener of Fremont, whose big beef is the potholes at Warm Springs Boulevard and Mission Boulevard. “Step 10 feet into the intersection itself and the roadway is bad, bad, bad.”
Caltrans has made a few attempts to toss in some asphalt at that stretch of Mission (officially Highway 262) and more repairs are coming, but it’s just another street on the growing list.
“The best way to describe the state of our region’s pavement,” said John Goodwin of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, ”is consistent mediocrity” — and the welcome but drenching rains have made things worse.
The science behind potholes is simple. When water permeates the pavement — usually through a crack — and softens the soil beneath it, a depression is created in the surface of the street. Then a few thousand cars travel over the soft spot, and the constant hammering can make the pothole grow into a moon crater unless dealt with immediately.
Major repairs cost five to 10 times more than routine maintenance, putting those streets at an especially critical stage. The region’s three largest cities — San Jose, San Francisco and Oakland — are either in the “at risk” category or uncomfortably close.
Even when streets are repaved, potholes can be just a hard rain away. Drivers say gaps near manhole covers on Monument Boulevard in Concord have created potholes every 75 feet or so in recent weeks.
“It’s converted what used to be the minor irritation of 1- to 2-inch-deep holes into holes that now are 3 to 4 inches deep in random patterns that are almost impossible to avoid,” said Tim Dellara of Concord, where crews have repaired approximately 600 potholes this season.
It’s not any better on New Jersey Avenue in San Jose. “By the end of the rains,” said motorist Dan O’Neal, of San Jose, about the stretch in front of Ida Price and Fammatre schools, “it will look like a cratered bombing range.”
The list goes on and on. San Lorenzo Boulevard at Ocean Street is the lowest point in Santa Cruz next to the San Lorenzo River levee and crews are out almost daily filling chuckholes.
And on Montague Expressway in the South Bay, bumpety-bump-bump.
Roads officials say it can take a few shovels of mix to shore up the street, unless the damage is greater. Then it can be hours. Workers in San Jose are sometimes pulled from other duties to grab a shovel.
“Often one request for a pothole to be repaired is actually anywhere from two to 10 potholes,” said Kristine Shaff, spokeswoman for the Oakland Public Works Department, which has gotten more than 900 requests to fill potholes since the start of the year.
“While our crews work on pothole repairs, crack sealing, as well as repaving, our 806 lane-miles of streets in Oakland are aging every day and much more is needed.”
That’s the case throughout California. Streets laid out when Dwight Eisenhower was in the White House, coupled with cuts in transportation funds to cities, much more traffic plus all this rain are to blame. And it may get worse. The state excise gas tax has been lowered 11 cents a gallon in the last three years, which led to a $754 million cut in funds — and that’s where 44 percent of the money to fill potholes on city streets comes from.
Because cities know drivers beg for smoother streets, San Jose vows to fill a pothole within two days of it being reported. Other cities make similar pledges.
Not taking action can have serious consequences. In 2011, Oakland agreed to a $3.25 million settlement with bicyclist Dulcey Bower, who was badly injured when she crashed while going downhill on pothole-laden Mountain Boulevard between Ascot Drive and Highway 13.
And a typical Bay Area driver can fork over more than $1,000 a year for pothole-related repairs.
“The disastrous effect of potholes is not just on the car suspension but also on motorist safety,” said Rick Nowack, a San Jose driver. “Driving through pothole lanes causes drivers to zigzag through the mess and this increases the possibility of sideswiping cars in adjacent lanes.”
Few cities have problems as extensive as in San Jose, where the current backlog of $522 million in deferred maintenance could grow to $880 million in four more years.
The best way to keep potholes from forming is to keep streets well-maintained, said Kevin O’Connor, the assistant director of transportation in San Jose.
“Once you get a pothole, you’ve failed at your job,” he said.