Pothole problems: Winter takes toll on Centre County roadways

Harold Wamboldt, left, Ed Weitoish, middle, and Kurt Gooding put a temporary patch on a pothole along North Atherton Street on Thursday.
Harold Wamboldt, left, Ed Weitoish, middle, and Kurt Gooding put a temporary patch on a pothole along North Atherton Street on Thursday. CDT photo

There’s been a deep freeze in Centre County, and the area’s roadways have the cracks and craters to prove it.

Mark Whitfield, State College’s public works director, said that frost reaches down 32 inches under the surface in some areas, almost three times what’s normal for the area.

“I haven’t seen frozen ground this deep in the winter since the mid-’70s,” Whitfield said.

The extended and prolonged cold snaps that allowed the frost to creep down, and the occasional freeze-thaw cycles of the past few months have been the perfect recipe for potholes, and lots of them.

It’s a headache for drivers, who sometimes can’t see or avoid the hazards. The jolt can damage tires, rims or worse, and mean hundreds of dollars in repairs. Local municipalities, too, will shell out later this year for permanent repairs to roadways.

State and local road crews have already been out, taking advantage of any mild weather they can get, making temporary repairs on North Atherton Street, Valley Vista Drive, University Drive and beyond.

Even more damage could appear later this spring, when the deep layer of frost finally leaves the ground.

“It’s just the nature of the beast,” Whitfield said. “It’s just been an abnormal winter both in terms of numbers of events and cold weather. We are going to pay for it this spring.”

A temporary fix

The asphalt patch steamed in the winter air this week as state Department of Transportation workers shoveled it onto North Atherton Street.

The material, commonly called cold patch, works as a temporary fix for potholes. Despite its name, cold patch had been heated to 100 degrees to keep it pliable as crews work in wintry conditions.

“Right now, we’re just trying to take the edge off the potholes and make them passable,” said Ed Weitoish, foreman for Centre County PennDOT.

When asphalt-producing plants open up later this month, crews will have access to what is called a hot mix material, necessary for more permanent repairs.

For now, they have their hands full with cold patch.

“This winter was pretty rough so far on a couple of our roads,” said Brent Brubaker, Patton Township public works manager. “Throughout the winter when the potholes have gotten pretty bad, we’ve gotten cold patch down. This year, we are going to have a lot more on the list than we normally do.”

In Bellefonte, borough Manager Ralph Stewart said that about twice as many potholes have formed than do in a typical year.

According to PennDOT, potholes form when snow or rain seeps into the ground below the road surface. When the water freezes, the ground expands, pushing the pavement up. When the ground returns to normal, the pavement can remain raised. When a vehicle drives over the cavity, the road cracks and a pothole is born.

“This winter has brought numerous freeze-thaw cycles, and that will put stress on roadway material and lead to cracking, deterioration ... and potholes,” PennDOT spokeswoman Marla Fannin said in an email. “We have had a more intense winter this year than in recent years and it does seem that potholes are more numerous than in past years.”

More problems to come

Whitfield heard concerns at a public meeting this month that manholes on State College roads were sinking.

They aren’t, of course, he explained. But there is a reason why some might be confused — roads in some areas are heaving, or being pushed up, above the level of the manholes.

“Anytime you get frost below (the road), it gets under and starts to expand,” he said. “You don’t see anything like that here. (Frost that extends) 10 to 12 inches might be a typical winter. That gets us down right to the roadway base.”

With frost extending down far past the roadway base, heaving is an issue this year.

“It’s movement,” Whitfield said. “Come June, everything will settle back to where it was. We’re probably going to end up with, once the frost goes out of the ground, we’re going to have another round of potholes.”

Officials in Ferguson and College townships said they have a handle on potholes now, but described cracks that could be attributable to the deep freeze.

“I’d say the next three or four weeks is a critical time as the temperature warms up and the frost comes out of the ground,” said Garry Williams, College Township director of public works.

The repair bill

Meanwhile, auto body shops have their hands full because drivers just can’t steer clear of potholes.

“That’s a big yes,” Steve Neff, service manager at Walk’s Service Center, said when asked if the shop was busy Friday. “It’s been a really hard winter. There are lots of potholes, I’m sure.”

Running over a pothole can cause serious damage, and repair bills can easily approach $800, said J.R. Vratarich, co-owner of Tire Town.

“We have a vehicle here today that hit a bruising pothole and ruined its lower ball joints,” Neff said. “That’s the extreme. Most often we are seeing cars out of alignment.”

Both men recommended slowing down when possible, but said that’s not always an option when driving in traffic. Potholes can also be difficult to see at night, and hard to judge when filled with water.

“I was in Pittsburgh last week and I hit one,” Vratarich said. “I thought I buried my car. It was on the parkway going 65 mph, cars on both sides. I took one for the team.”