A cycle of freezing and thawing opens up potholes each year that road crews struggle with, as Oakland County did in February. (Daniel Mears / The Detroit News)
From polar vortex to pothole vortex: Road crews throughout the Metro area are scrambling to fill potholes that are plaguing area roads after last week’s dramatic 55-degree swing in temperatures.
Temperatures that plunged to 15 below zero early last week were followed days later by a warmup to 40 degrees, creating the infamous freeze/thaw cycle that produces tire-destroying potholes (also known as chuckholes).
“We have crews out all over the place,” said Road Commission for Oakland County spokesman Craig Bryson. “Going from 15 below to 40 degrees is a recipe for potholes. We are getting calls, emails and posts from the public about potholes.”
The road commission also is hearing plenty about the terrible conditions on gravel roads.
“Basically they’re going to hell,” Bryson said. “When the temperatures went up, we had a lot of melting snow.”
“But two feet down the ground is frozen solid, so there’s no place for the water to go,” he said. “Then the temperatures go below freezing overnight and then (it) remelts again the next day. You either end up with a frozen road or a slushy soup: both are very slippery.”
According to Bryson, the RCOC spends $5 million to $6 million per year on pothole repairs, out of a budget of about $108 million.
Freeze/thaw occurs when water freezes and then expands.
If the water is in a crack in the pavement — or the sub-pavement where gravel and sand support the roadway — it enlarges the crack or makes a frozen-water bubble that pushes up from below.
When a vehicle passes over the damaged pavement, it can collapse into a depression that grows into a pothole.
Crews are also hard at work in Wayne County, according to Cindy Dingell, spokeswoman for the Wayne County Department of Public Services Roads Division. They’re patching holes on county and state roads and interstates, including Eight Mile, M-14, Interstate 275 and Farmington between Six and Seven Mile.
As in Oakland County, Wayne County is having trouble with gravel roads.
“Most of our calls have been about icy gravel roads,” Dingell said. “We had crews out sanding gravel roads all through the weekend. We receive most calls in the spring, but this recent thaw has created problems.”
According to Dingell, Wayne County used 4,100 tons of cold patch on potholes in 2013.
The damage potholes can cause to cars is keeping auto repair shops busy, too.
“We see a lot of bent wheels, destroyed tires and front ends knocked out of alignment,” said Hal Collins, owner of Hal’s Auto Clinic in Farmington Hills and Northville. “If you get all three of those problems, it can cost you about $700 in repairs if you have an expensive wheel. If you have an inexpensive wheel, it might run you about $300.”
Although spring is traditionally the time of heaviest pothole claims, Collins is already seeing customers limping in with suspension problems.
“We’re seeing quite a few more customers this week with bent wheels,” Collins said.
There are some things you can do if you’re suddenly confronted with a pothole, according to Collins.
“Obviously first of all is try to avoid it, but only if you can safely drive around it,” he said.
“If you can’t, then brake before you hit the pothole, but let off on the brake before you hit it. That will unload the suspension before you hit the hole.”
Report potholes or other road problems to:
■ Michigan Department of Transportation. Go to the website at www.michigan.gov/mdot, then click on the pothole icon.
■ MDOT pothole line at (888) 296-4546.
■ Road Commission for Oakland County at (877) 858-4804.
■ Wayne County Department of Public Services Roads Division at (888) 762-3273.
■ Macomb County Department of Roads at (586) 463-8671.