Tire-busting potholes bust Duluth's budget and cars

By Brianna Dehncke and Jennifer Walch A small crack appeared in the middle of a Duluth road during the fall season. People ran over this crack every day on their commutes around town, unaware that the crack would soon become treacherous in a few short months. The season began to change and a strong Northland winter came through. The crack became filled with snow, ice and water. The water froze, pushing the pavement of the road up and the subsurface down. Traffic continued over this crack everyday and still people had no inclination of what was to come. The spring season sprung, as it does every year. The heat from the sun met with what had settled into the crack, ultimately thawing the ice. As people continued to travel on the road, the subsurface finally gave way making the crack larger, deeper and more prevalent within the street. A pothole was born.

Throughout the City of Duluth potholes are born every year. Residents in Duluth have learned to adapt to this fact, and the city has taken measures to ensure smooth road conditions. Yet, with the changing of seasons, potholes continue to remain an enemy to many.

Take, for example, Jesse and Anna Johnson, a couple who have lived together for over five years on the corner or 18th avenue east and seventh street.

“It’s actually stressful driving around town,” Anna said. “It’s almost like being out on a jungle safari, except you don’t get to see any exotic animals. You just think your car is going to fall apart.”

Anna claims she deals with a flat tire almost every three months.

“I would rather pay higher taxes to fix the streets than to pay for the damages I personally pay throughout the year to fix my car,” she said.

Another resident, Steph Bredberg, has a 2007 Pontiac G6. She has recently taken her car into the shop with more than $1,500 in damages resulting mainly from poor road conditions.

“My rims were all busted up,” she said. “And that’s only the beginning. The mechanic guy at the shop told me because I live in Duluth that I should check my brakes every 4,000 miles.”

It is recommended that the average car have its brakes checked once every six months or whenever the tires are rotated.

An approach called capping is what the city of Duluth mainly uses to fix the roads. A layer of blacktop or asphalt is laid down over the street. This layer acts as a blanket and prevents water from getting into the subsurface pavement where it will freeze and start the birth of a new pothole. It also provides a smooth layer of asphalt, one that generally appeals to the walker, biker or rollerblader.

The capping approach is cheaper than reconstructing the whole street however; it may not be as effective.

“Typically, the capping process will help to maintain the roads for another 10-15 years.” said street maintenance supervisor Barbara Kolodge. “But the roads are only as good as the subsurface beneath them.”

The city has gone about the reconstruction of potholes in many different ways over time.

According to Kolodge, the city once used the process of dust oiling to repair the roads. The roads in the 1960s and 1970s began as gravel roads. Roads did not have a solid base, stone gutters were common and very few curbs were found during this time. Oil was first put down on the streets and was then layered with sand.

“The main objective was to cut down on the dust that came about from the gravel roads,” she said. “That is where the term dust oiling came from.”

The city used this approach to fix the streets year after year, and a crust similar to black top was formed. However, once this blacktop started to deteriorate it was no longer an effective solution to street and pothole maintenance.

The Duluth City Council has recently taken larges strides to push road maintenance.

“For the last two years, one mile of road has been repaired per year”, said Dan Hartman, At-Large Duluth City Councilor.

There are 400 total road miles in the city of Duluth, and the city plans to repair over 100 miles in the next five years.

With such a mild winter season this past year road maintenance crews have gotten a head start on road construction.

“This year has been a better year so far because we had an earlier spring—temperatures were above normal there wasn’t much snow, so we’ve been able to get out there. “ said Bob Ladoux of the city maintenance division. Road maintenance workers are out fixing the roads each weekday from 7:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.

“We understand everyone’s complaints about the roads," Ladoux said. “But I can guarantee, we’re doing what we can to fix those tire-busting lunkers.”

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