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Straight Talk About Potholes & Pavements

The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) defines a pothole simply as "a bowl-shaped depression in the pavement surface." A slightly more comprehensive definition is "a deterioration of the pavement surface in which the material breaks down in a relatively short time and is lost causing a steep depression." Potholes may be commonly thought of as an asphalt pavement issue because 94% of all paved roads in the U.S. are surfaced with asphalt, but potholes can occur in asphalt, concrete, or composite pavements, as well as in dirt and gravel roads.


Potholes occur when water infiltrates a road surface, weakening the material in a way that diminishes the weakened portion of the pavement's ability to carry traffic. Freeze–thaw cycles typically accelerate this damage as freezing water expands and wedges apart cracks or pavement layers. This is why potholes can seem to appear suddenly during wet winters with rapid swings in temperatures. Left untreated, the pavement damage can reach a point where material begins to pop out of the pothole or to ravel away, accelerating the pavement vulnerability and damage. In most cases, potholes are not an indication of a structural failure and the pavement can be successfully repaired. However, if left untreated, the damage can continue to grow, resulting in a more difficult and costly repair.


In a well-maintained pavement, potholes should not form. With an active pavement management system and appropriate pavement preservation activities, as well as proper repair of utility cuts, a pavement should not allow for the infiltration of water that can lead to potholes. However, in a time when public budgets are stretched and public works and road maintenance programs face chronic underfunding, it is no surprise that a harsh winter can lead to a noticeable increase in potholes on pavements that have deferred maintenance.


The simple fact is that while potholes form in pavements, they can be prevented in budgets. At all levels of government, departments of transportation and public works agencies face difficult decisions about how to allocate maintenance, repair, and construction funds across their road networks. Often trade-offs must be made, especially when public pressure calls for a "fix the worst first" strategy, which can mean more expensive repairs instead of spending money to keep serviceable pavements in good condition. Unfortunately, no matter how diligent an agency is, without greater investment in our roads at the local, state, and federal levels, this will continue to be a problem.


When a pothole does form, sometimes the best that an agency can do is put a patch in place and then plan for a more complete repair later in the year. During winter, asphalt plants in many parts of the country stop producing mixtures as paving is not appropriate in low temperatures and instead focus on equipment maintenance and facility upgrades. Also, when the weather is too cold and wet, placing asphalt in a way that ensures long-lasting performance can be difficult. Cold-mix asphalt patching solutions, when placed with proper site preparation, can make a road safer for drivers, but ultimately these patches will need to be replaced with a more permanent repair.


The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers provides a good understanding of how public agencies can work to address and avoid potholes, Pothole Primer: A Public Administrator’s Guide to Understanding and Managing the Pothole Problem (Special Report 81-21). It includes the following 12-point suggested pothole repair program focused on understanding pavement conditions and maintaining pavement performance.

1. Train a "Pothole Supervisor" to recognize problem areas in your town or city.
2. Conduct an inventory of your pavement system to rate the condition of each street.
3. Develop a maintenance schedule based upon the inventory…
4. Provide separate budgets for snow removal and road maintenance.
5. Establish a normal program of inspection and removal of debris from drainage ditches and structures.
6. Equip pothole repair crews to blow out, sweep or otherwise remove water and to dry and prepare the hole.
7. Repair potholes successfully by: a) proper hole preparation, b) use of heated asphalt concrete, and c) proper compaction of materials.
8. Repair potholes in the summer based on year-round monitoring and the inventory.
9. Use proper materials and procedures in good weather for permanent "one-shot" repairs.
10. Develop a first-class, strictly enforced system of coordinating the improvements to underground utilities with the street resurfacing program.
11. Establish a system making the utility responsible for the care and maintenance of a patch for at least a year after a pavement cut.
12. Maintain your pavements on a regular and proper basis to protect your investment.