Potholes are Carolinas’ jarring reminder of harsh winter

They are a reminder of winter that is tough to avoid these days.

Across the Carolinas, motorists are having close encounters with potholes, and road engineers say the problem seems to be worse than usual this spring.

It was a perfect winter for the creation of potholes – lots of precipitation and frequent, big changes in temperature, with plenty of below-freezing weather.

Road crews are doing the best they can to patch the holes and save motorists the expense of auto repairs. But the severity of the problem this spring is taxing the budgets of town and state road departments.

In Pineville, the town’s Public Works Department has exhausted its $138,000 budget. The N.C. Department of Transportation already went $22 million over its $40 million budget plowing roads and spreading salt and brine during the winter, and now the pothole repairs are increasing the cost.

State transportation officials say they might have to shift some of the money normally spent on mowing lawns in the summer to fix holes in the road.

“We’ve been hearing complaints from motorists,” said Tom Emch of Matthews Towing and Automotive. “It seems to be bad this year.”

Mike Holder, chief engineer for the N.C. Department of Transportation, said potholes are created when moisture seeps into cracks in road surfaces. Water expands when it freezes, and frequently during the past winter, heavy rain events were followed by freezes. As the water expands, it breaks apart the road surface, creating the holes that are throwing wheels out of alignment – and worse.

Holder said crews across North Carolina have been busy in recent weeks. The same is true in South Carolina, especially in the Upstate. DOT officials in the Upstate said they received more than 70 damage claims from motorists in February alone.

Fixing the holes is a relatively simple process. Crews trim the edges, add a sticky liquid asphalt and then fill the hole with asphalt heated to more than 300 degrees, DOT officials said. The asphalt is flattened, and the repair should last several years. But sometimes, weak spots near the repaired pothole can cause a new problem to develop the following year. A woman waiting for new tires at a Walmart on U.S. 74 in Indian Trail said a hole has developed in the same spot on Idlewild Road, near Mint Hill Middle School, for three straight years.

“We do ask motorists to be patient with road crews,” Holder said. “They will fill the potholes as quickly as they can, but they first address the ones that are the greatest safety concern.”

Emch said he has seen potholes do significant damage to vehicles.

“Obviously, it can cause problems with alignment, but the holes also can damage suspension parts,” he said. “I’ve even seen a case where a pothole damaged the oil pan under the car. They can cause major headaches.”

There appears to be one haven from the potholes. Linda Durrett of the Charlotte Department of Transportation said the city has not received a lot of complaints so far this year.

“The problems in Charlotte seem to be on the state-maintained roads,” she said. “So far our roads have been in good shape. We’ve done a lot of work in recent years to resurface those roads.”