Pothole Purgatory: Managing Those Road Menaces

Those hated craters crop up all over Jersey roads. Here’s why—and what you can do when you hit one.

Potholes are a rampant problem in New Jersey.
Illustration by Peter Oumanski

New Jersey and potholes are perfect together, geographically speaking.

Every year, these familiar craters pop up on Garden State roadways as we get deeper into winter. Is it a trick of the Jersey Devil, angered perhaps by the frigid air?

No, says Nick Vitillo, research associate at the Center for Advanced Infrastructure and Transportation (CAIT) at Rutgers University. New Jersey just happens to be in the right place at the right time for potholes to bloom.

Potholes, he says, are formed by the freezing and thawing of water after it seeps between the top layers of a roadway through a crack that can be as small as one-eighth of an inch. The water enters the top two layers of asphalt—each layer is generally 2 to 3 inches thick—and sits.

When the temperature drops below 32°F, the water freezes and expands, pushing up the top layers of asphalt and creating space between them.

Once the temperature rises, the ice thaws and leaves a gap. As traffic passes over the area, the top layer weakens due to the gaps below. More cracks appear. Eventually, they connect to form a ring, which collapses into itself. Voila! A pothole is born.

Vitillo says temperature fluctuations in the tristate area cause a constant freezing and thawing of water beneath the roadways, leading to the proliferation of wintertime potholes—especially on older roads.

“In Florida, you don’t have the freezing temperatures, so you’re not going to have potholes like in the Northeast,” he says. “But also, if you’re up in Maine and the temperature freezes in October, it stays frozen until spring. It’s in New Jersey, when it’s constantly freezing and thawing, that you’re actually seeing more damage.”

Once a pothole is formed, there are generally two ways to fix it.

A quick wintertime fix is to put down cold patch material, which temporarily fills the hole. Often, the same pothole will reappear and require refilling. For a long-term fix, says Vitillo, the water in the pothole is removed, a bonding agent applied and hot asphalt utilized to fill the crater. Alas, it’s not easy to employ the hot-asphalt method in the winter months, Vitillo says. Many local asphalt companies close in the winter, when demand for their services diminishes. Often, more permanent fixes must wait until spring.

Vitillo says the Department of Transportation (DOT) has been working with CAIT to develop a better pavement-management system that would preemptively check roads for cracks before they yield potholes.

For now, however, potholes are on the rise.

According to Steve Schapiro, acting DOT communications director, in 2014 the agency repaired approximately 275,000 potholes, an increase from 166,000 in 2013 and 180,000 in 2012.

“Last year was one of the worst winters on record,” says Schapiro. “The number of storms and the severe freeze-thaw cycles that we experienced were quite harsh on our roadways.”

This contention is supported by the New Jersey Department of Treasury, which experienced a major jump in the number of pothole claims for 2014. In 2013, there were 515 pothole claims submitted to the state. At press time, that number had rocketed to 2,655 for 2014, according to Treasury department communications director Joseph Perone.

Despite all of those claims, the state compensated relatively few motorists for pothole damage.

In 2014, only 12 pothole claims resulted in compensation payments. They totaled $3,656—typically a reimbursement for the claimant’s insurance deductible. Perone ties the low compensation rate to the frequent failure of claimants to file with the correct agency.

For claimants, the most important factor, he says, is to determine whether the guilty pothole is on a state, county, municipal or toll road. Each requires a different procedure for a claim.

If the pothole was on a state road, the vehicle’s owner—not the driver—must fill out a pothole claim on the DOT website within 90 days of the incident. The state investigates the claim to determine whether the pothole had been filled in a timely manner, indicating that there was no negligence on the state’s part. Repair estimates, or a receipt showing proof of payment for repairs and insurance information, are required from the vehicle’s owner. The process can take three to six months.

Meanwhile, those pesky craters just won’t go away.

To help motorists, Plymouth Rock New Jersey, a Garden State-based insurance company, has a short list of driver precautions. It’s pretty basic: keep tires properly inflated, beware of water-filled potholes, stay focused, drive slower and drive smarter.

Or just move to Florida.

Click here to read more reasons why Jersey roads suck.

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