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Public works crews fight never-ending battle against pothole-ridden streets

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Sometimes Todd W. Wheeler feels like he is fighting a never-ending battle at work.

That’s because Mr. Wheeler and his Department of Public Works co-workers are part of the pothole gang. They frequently go out at this time of the year to repair hundreds of potholes on streets all over the city.

Mr. Wheeler and his colleagues take out two pickup trucks, a few shovels, the vibratory tamper, a hand tamper and a load of cold asphalt in a front loader, where the black tar-like material is readily available to them. They also take a list of potholes that should be repaired.

A crew member cleans out pebbles and other debris from the hole, then co-workers use shovels to fetch cold asphalt — known as cold patch — from the front loader. Another man takes a hand tamper to pack the cold patch down into the pothole.

Recently, the cold-patch truck they have used for years finally kicked the bucket. Its replacement already has been ordered and should be here for next season, said Patrick W. Keenan, a street/sewer maintenance supervisor.

Councilwoman Teresa R. Macaluso mentioned at Monday’s City Council meeting that she had received calls from residents complaining about potholes.

On Tuesday, Mr. Wheeler, a light-equipment operator, and his colleagues were out filling a series of potholes on West Main Street. It took them just a few minutes to patch each hole of varying size before moving on to the next.

Sometimes years in the making, potholes can pop up seemingly overnight. And what the crew can do is only a temporary fix — within a day or two, a pothole often reappears, Mr. Wheeler said. He knows these new patches will not hold up to the crush of traffic on one of Watertown’s busiest streets.

“We won’t be back tomorrow,” he said. “But we’ll have to come back by the end of the week.”

Of course, potholes are a headache for drivers, too; all too often, they can’t be avoided.

The pothole crews go out only when it doesn’t snow, which hasn’t been too often this winter.

With lots of snow, an ice storm and brutally low temperatures, the pothole season is just getting started, Mr. Keenan said.

Potholes are caused mainly by fluctuations in temperatures, freezing water and the many vehicles traveling over the streets daily. When it’s cold, the water freezes and expands, and when it melts, it seeps down into cracks in the roadway. If it gets to the sub-base, the road deteriorates from there, Mr. Keenan said.

“It’s like a roof on a house,” he said. “The key is keeping water out. If water gets in, that’s it.”

Potholes occur more often on old roads. On West Main Street, for instance, DPW crews tore up the road in one spot to fix a sewer about 15 years ago and the road was never completely repaired after that, so it is vulnerable to potholes, Mr. Keenan said. Mill and LeRay streets and nearby roads on the city’s north side have some of the worst potholes; some are as big as 12 inches by 6 inches and 6 inches deep, he said.

Depending on the weather, Mr. Wheeler and his three fellow DPW workers — the men who also plow the roads — can spend their entire eight-hour daytime shift repairing the holes. The city has other crews that work from 4 p.m. to midnight and another that goes out overnight.

State Department of Transportation crews also are readying for pothole season, said Michael R. Flick, public information officer for DOT Region 7.

“They’re just starting to pop up,” Mr. Flick said. “We’re just seeing some come out.”

DOT has a hotline for motorists to call when they encounter a pothole.: 1-800-POTHOLE. DOT also has a website with more information at a website with further information: http://wdt.me/dot-pothole. And Region 7 has a Twitter account: http://wdt.me/dot-twitter.

TO REPORT A POTHOLE
DOT has a telephone hotline and Web-based resources for motorists.
• Call 1-800-POTHOLE
• To follow DOT Region 7 on Twitter, go to http://wdt.me/dot-twitter
• For more information, visit http://wdt.me/dot-pothole
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