In the cab of a truck painted City of St. John’s green, Rick Lear unfolds a list and plots a plan of pothole attack.
He and the man behind the wheel, Danny O’Toole, form one of the city’s asphalt repair teams, the units that cap between 7,000 and 8,000 road craters annually.
The recent freezing and thawing has their motor running on this fine, but frosty, February afternoon.
“It’s a big challenge (to stay on top of potholes) sometimes,” says their boss, Paul Mackey, in a separate interview.
“If you have weather like we’ve had over the last eight or 10 days, a big thaw cycle. It’s a big challenge to stay ahead. You get really swamped with potholes in a short period.”
The Telegram is tagging along with Lear and O’Toole for a few hours.
The good-humoured guys are handling holes in roads on the southern and western sides of St. John’s.
Another crew is taking care of the eastern and northern extremities.
There are usually two teams working, but if potholes proliferate to the point where that isn’t enough, the city will add extra crews and/or extend the hours of the crews.
Today, Lear and O’Toole are heading to Kilbride and Goulds to patch holes on a list compiled at the depot with input from residents, city staff and councillors.
Anyone who sees a pothole is encouraged to call 311 and report it.
“If we don’t know about them, we can’t fix them,” says Mackey, whose official title is director of public works.
He points out it is particularly important for the public to help identify cavities on thoroughfares like the Harbour Arterial, where cars travel at higher speeds and more damage can be caused.
Lear and O’Toole show the pothole patching process is pretty straightforward.
A truck is backed over the hole and fills it with smoking hot asphalt the crews make at Robin Hood Bay. (The city has an asphalt recycler there.)
The black stuff is then smoothed out and packed down with a roller-type machine that, from a distance, could pass for a lawn mover.
With recent fluctuating temperatures and rainfall, Lear and O’Toole have been doing dozens of potholes a day.
Their record so far this winter is 29.
The challenge is not the time it takes to fill one. It’s getting to as many as they can.
The to-patch list can grow throughout the day and the teams stop to fill any cavities that aren’t on their agenda, but shouldn’t be ignored.
As well, sometimes they can be called to tackle a newly reported pothole that might be damaging vehicles or eating tires.
Those suckers take priority.
“If you see hub caps, you know it’s a big one,” O’Toole notes.
See PATCHING, page A2
They see potholes eight or nine inches deep, and/or many feet in circumference.
This afternoon’s list takes them from a residential neighbourhood to a farming area and on to another residential area, one where there’s no apparent portion of pavement in need of repair.
So they back track and pour some asphalt in a hole on the main road through Goulds, a crater that’s not on their list.
Traffic slows for the crew, but that isn’t always the case.
And they never know if the pothole they’ve just patched will stay that way.
They could be called back any day.
Occasionally, the asphalt crews have to fill the same hole daily.
But that’s the nature of the work. Pothole repairs during the winter are temporary.
The more permanent work comes in the summer, when there’s no freezing and thawing (or at least everyone hopes there’s not).
Mackey explains there shouldn’t be potholes if the asphalt and the ground underneath are good.
Once pavement ages, he continues, it becomes vulnerable and can crack.
If that happens, water gets in and then freezes and expands, causing it to crack even further.
Add traffic and plow blades running over it, and a pothole is born.
“The weather is the main driving factor,” Mackey says.
On this afternoon, the weather is the key to Lear and O’Toole patching a lot of holes in a short period of time. (See video at thetelegram.com.)
They realize they can only try and keep up, that there will always be more work down the road.
The forecast could well read: “Mild with a 100 per cent chance of pot holes.”