Hole-y hell, it’s bad out there on the road this year.
And there is no dead end in sight — except for your tires, perhaps — when it comes to potholes in Aurora. In fact, for more than two decades the city has been making a game of it, regularly rewarding the resident who reports the biggest cement orifice each month of the fall, winter and spring.
But the cash reward — $50 if you find a monster of a crater — serves a serious purpose. City transportation staff say the contest helps them find some of the biggest potholes across the city and address them quickly.
In March, one Aurora driver found a whopper: The city streets department told The Sentinel the winner measured 36 inches by 48 inches and was 8 inches deep.
“Anything bigger than 55 inches in circumference is considered road erosion,” a streets staffer said.
That becomes a different issue entirely, but the business of potholes keeps the city and its street crews busy.
The “pothole of the month club,” as streets manager Tom McMinimee jokingly called the program, gets about 130 nominations each month, but March was significantly busier. There were 212 pothole entries.
McMinimee credits that to a wetter winter than the city has seen in the past few years.
Bob Wilson, spokesman for the Colorado Department of Transportation, agreed with McMinimee’s assessment, saying the consistent snowfall across the Front Range this winter has dealt a blow to the metro area’s roadways.
“It’s worse this year because we had a lot more snow along the Front Range,” Wilson said. “At the lower elevations it’s worse than it’s been in the past two or three years.”
Potholes are created when water gets through the street’s surface, often after repeated cycles of freezing and thawing, according to CDOT. McMinimee calls it “weathering,” and it’s pretty normal, no matter how annoying the cavities can be.
McMinimee said his crews patch hundreds of holes each week. Many of the smaller fissures are spotted by locals, but the vast majority are found by Aurora streets crews. McMinimee estimated that only about 5 percent of what his crews fix are submitted by the public.
“We’re actively searching on main arteries and collector streets,” he said. “We have 77 operators, and everybody is driving every day.”
CDOT also asks vigilant drivers to report road rents when they find them.
“If a driver sees or hits a pothole on a state highway, we encourage them to contact us so we can get a repair scheduled,” CDOT Division of Highway Maintenance Director Kyle Lester said in a statement. “We appreciate it when drivers let us know where a pothole has formed so we can repair it as soon as possible.”
Motorists are encouraged to report road quality issues to CDOT’s regional hotline at 303-759-2368.
Wilson said drivers can look at road signs to determine whether they’re on a state highway — which would fall under the purview of CDOT — or a city street.
In Aurora, state highways include Havana Street, Parker Road and East Colfax Avenue. CDOT is also responsible for maintenance on Interstate 70 and Interstate 225. The agency does not oversee the E-470 toll road.
Lester urged drivers to slow down if they believe they’re approaching a crevice on a state highway or a maintenance crew working to fill the tiny chasms.
“Throughout the early spring, drivers should be prepared for moving, single-lane closures, along with possible delays, while potholes are being repaired,” he said. “For safety sake, CDOT recommends that if you cannot avoid a pothole, please reduce your speed and check your rear or sideview mirrors before swerving or braking abruptly.”
The state department of transportation is responsible for maintaining some 23,000 lane miles of highway across the state, as well as nearly 3,500 bridges, according to the CDOT website.
Locally, McMinimee’s city crews catch their own share of mayhem on the winding streets of Aurora.
The streets department can deploy up to three patch trucks each day, according to McMinimee. He said that’s often the case, unless a big snow storm hits the city. This time of year, warm spring days are optimal for getting down to work filling in those parkway hollows.
Despite the amenable conditions for workers, the time it takes to patch particularly beastly gashes found on thoroughfares can vary. It usually takes a pair of CDOT workers between 10 and 30 minutes to mend a pothole, depending on the size of the rut, according to a CDOT news release earlier this month. Each depression filled by state highway workers costs an average of $60 per square yard, according to CDOT.
To plug the pesky pits, crews in Aurora typically use two types of patch: cold patch and hot patch.
Cold patch is more often used when the weather is cold and wet — it’s basically just dry, unheated asphalt. Like the name implies, it isn’t heated like hot patch.
When crews do use hot patch, they likely won’t be back out to address that particular hole for a while. Asphalt can keep hold for about 15 years.
“When it’s nice out and we’re using hot patch material, they will last a long time — they can last years,” McMinimee said. “We put the cold patch in to keep the road safe, but it comes back out by springtime.”
Lately, crews have been pouring a lot of cold patch because of weather conditions.
The constant struggle to make Aurora’s aging roads drivable can make filling potholes feel a lot like the game Whack-A-Mole, McMinimee said. No matter how often a patch crew is dispatched or how many holes they fill, there always seems to be a new one on the horizon.
But a new tracking system may make pothole fixing a little bit easier. McMinimee said all the crews are now outfitted with tablet computers that track the location of each stop the patch trucks make. Crews also are able to document the size of the hole and what kind of patch was applied.
That kind of data could help city staffers get a better sense of where the greatest problems exist around the city. Crews have only had the tablets since the beginning of the year, but already McMinimee said the tracking has been eye-opening. Mostly, he said, he’s surprised by the sheer number of potholes his crews are filling each day, but he didn’t specify how many road breaches his crews are filling daily.
And even though Aurora’s lingering pothole problem may seem like an interminable leech of time and money, McMinimee operates within a budget. Overall, his department is allocated more than $17 million each year for multiple projects. The street overlay maintenance budget, which encompasses pothole paving, is allocated about $800,000 each year.
It’s a lot of money, but not nearly enough to keep the roads good as new. Last fall city staff said Aurora faces a $235 million deficit when it comes to road projects.
Despite the sizable shortfall in the city’s transportation budget, coffers dedicated to Aurora roads have received a small bump in recent years. The original budget for street repairs in 2017 was about $15.9 million, but city council allocated an additional $2 million from marijuana tax revenues for the projects. The year prior’s total budget was about $13.3 million.
According to city documents, 77 miles of the city’s roads in 2014 earned a score below 70 on a 100-point scale used by civil engineers to assess pavement quality. The system rates roads based on several factors, including use, cracking, potholes and shoulder quality.
The city currently has 1,245 miles of roads, according to city documents. McMinimee said the addition of about 250 miles of roads between 1998 and 2006, mostly in the city’s southeastern reaches, pose an imminent maintenance quandary going forward.
Similar suburban expansion has plagued other Front Range municipalities, too. Two different funding proposals on the statewide ballot floundered in November. One of those measures, Proposition 110, would have yielded the city about $10.2 million each year. That failed measure sought to increase sales tax $0.62 on a $100 purchase.
What’s in a name?
The etymology of the term “pothole” is about as mysterious as how you didn’t see that tire-chewing gash on Havana Street that compelled you to buy a new set of Hankooks. Most linguistic forums, as well as the Oxford English Dictionary, agree the term is grown out of a Middle English dialect and came into vogue sometime in the 19th century. The first chunk of the locution stems from the word “pit,” which — shocker — refers to a cavity caused by water erosion on rock. The whole “hole” part is just that — a hole. So, really, the term is wildly redundant and describes a hole’s hole.
However, the American Public Works Association pushes a more poetic backstory behind the word. In a pothole fact sheet published by the Missouri-based advocacy group, the authors say the term can be traced to pot makers in the 15th century. The artisans would supposedly dig out clay made accessible by rutted out wagon tracks on muddy roads. The ensuing craters caused by the potters’ nimble fingers were then not-so-affectionately deemed “potholes.” Although that tale has been largely dismissed, the yarn’s rosy nature makes it the preferred origin story for the phrase used to describe Aurora’s umpteen asphalt apertures.
— QUINCY SNOWDON, Staff Writer