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It’s Not Just Your Imagination, It Really Has Been A Particularly Bad Pothole Season

Sarah Kovash
90.5 WESA
Water fills a pothole on 10th Street in the South Side.

While the upswing in temperatures might have some Pittsburghers excited to ditch their coats, it’s helped create a nightmarish pothole season for city roads.

Jason Heckathorn knows firsthand. At his South Side auto repair shop, Apex Auto Services, he worked on a silver Mazda 3, an elongated sedan, that he suspected had a broken spring.

“This typically happens when the spring experiences a great shock of force that obviously goes beyond what its tensile strength can handle, and fractures,” Heckathorn said.

The damaged Mazda was one of several pothole casualties he’s seen this winter.

Heckathorn has owned the shop for two-and-half-years, but he’s worked as a mechanic for more than 20. He said it’s common to work on a couple of cars with pothole damage each season – two, maybe three – but this year he’s already seen at least 10, and the season’s not over yet.

Credit Sarah Kovash / 90.5 WESA
90.5 WESA
Adam Chromack, left, and Jason Heckathorn, right, work on a Mazda 3 that was damaged by a pothole.

“This season, for whatever reason, has been particularly bad,” Heckathorn said.

Pittsburgh City spokesman Tim McNulty agreed with that assessment.   

“It has been absolutely horrible, not only for Pittsburgh, but every municipality around Allegheny County and elsewhere in the Northeast,” McNulty said. “A lot of that is due to just the freeze and thaw cycle.”

Public Works crews have repaired roughly 1,700 potholes just in the last 30 days. Each year, the city gets thousands of requests for pothole repairs. The city received between 7,000 and 8,000 requests each year from 2015 to 2017. This year, McNulty said calls to the city’s 311 line have remained consistent with seasons past, but crews are out everyday – weather permitting – to repair those frustrating street craters.

“The problem is it’s raining so much, they can’t go out there. If you put pothole mix … into a hole that has water in it, that asphalt will immediately get washed away,” McNulty said. “It’s been really troublesome.”

Another thing many people may not realize, is that some of Pittsburgh’s major roads are owned by the state, meaning they’re maintained by PennDOT, not the city. Roads like Carson Street, Route 51 and part of Penn Avenue aren’t treated by Pittsburgh Public Works. However, if a city residents calls 311 to report a pothole on one of those roads, the city passes the info along to PennDOT, McNulty said.

It’s an imperfect system, which the city knows. The salt used to treat the roads ahead of winter weather grinds into the asphalt and loosens it. And the factories that manufacture hot asphalt don’t start firing up until the spring, McNulty said. That leaves the city with the option of using cold patch, more of a loose gravel, which is less stable than traditional hot asphalt.

But the city is looking into better solutions for the future, McNulty said.

“We’ve been studying everything that we do when it comes to snow removal, and ice and you know our salt supplies and that,” he said.

The city is even having data analysts call other cities to learn how their treat their roads in winter weather and figure out best practices.

In the meantime, Pittsburgh drivers will have to continue swerving around those tire eaters. And Heckathorn will keep working on damaged cars.

“Unfortunately there’s not much you can do about this stuff,” he said, “because in Pittsburgh, you’re gonna hit potholes.”