California roads plagued with costly pothole problem

Potholes flatten our tires, wreck alignments and allow rocks to fly into windshields. This is creating huge piles of bills Mother Nature is presenting to taxpayers chunk by crumbling chunk.

We've often talked about the danger of putting off road maintenance, Well, here comes the bill. There's a gaping pothole on Oakland's eastbound Highway 24, longer than the cars that cross it. It's one of a countless procession of potholes pock marking thousands of California roads .

Roads are complicated layers of various materials that flex just enough to bend, but not break as vehicles, especially trucks, roll over them. "When you have such heavy rain for such a sustained period of time, that's a lot of water being squeezed into the asphalt and you're gonna have a lot of potholes," said Bob Haus, spokesperson for Caltrans. 

Road engineer James Signore works for the East Bay road design and maintenance firm NCE, a firm that has many public agencies and private road owners as clients. Signore says continuing rains keep attacking and deteriorating the already weakened road structures.

"We're seeing more and more damage. Our clients are telling us, there seeing premature failures of our roads which means your rehabilitation, you maintenance costs are going skyrocketing," says Signore. Nonetheless, statewide, we defer needed maintenance at the rate on almost $6 billion a year.

Temporary patch repairs made on cold, rainy days will not last more than a few weeks.

"You can't make permanent repairs unless it is warm and dry. The temperature of the road has to be 50 degrees and above for the hot mix asphalt to adhere to the road," said Caltrans' Haus. Even with many hired contractors, Caltrans, counties and towns are overwhelmed.

"With the rains that we've had and all the extra work for our crews, our crews have been working 24/7 on emergency pothole repair, they've been working on mudslides, slip outs, trees down, assisting PG&E with power lines down," said Haus.

When the weather turns warm and dry, expect lots of lane closures, limited to what already stretched road budgets can afford. How serious a problem is this? Well, consider just a 40 foot stretch of half a city street. To permanently fix it, minimum cost, about $2000 times God knows how many more miles we're talking about.

Without proper maintenance, roads will not live out their decades long life spans. Most interstate highways are well past their 50-year design lives. Local roads are designed for half that.  So, other than serious emergencies, already badly worn roads will get little attention, as crews work to keep better ones from going bad.

"The cost in fixing a road that's almost at the end of its life, is not going to change much from one year to the next. Whereas, where you let a good condition road or a moderate condition road start to fail, your costs are going to escalate rapidly," said engineer Signore.

How else do you pay? Consider the tomato. A scientific study showed conclusively, tomatoes are more expensive than need be because so many are damaged while being hauled on our bumpy, potholed roads.