Vt. potholes gain national notoriety
By Kevin O’Connor
Staff Writer | April 01,2014
Anthony Edwards / Staff Photo
A vehicle passes by a pothole on Terrill Street in Rutland on Monday.
Vermonter Tom Bodett — the ad voice that advises “we’ll leave the light on for you” — began this past weekend’s fact-or-fiction segment of National Public Radio’s news quiz with a dark story of his state’s surest — and surliest — sign of spring.
“‘Watch for that pothole on Route 9’ used to be a warning to drivers,” he told listeners. “These days it’s an invitation for visitors to southern Vermont to witness a road hazard so infamous it has become a destination all its own.”
Bodett spoke of Brattleboro townsfolk and tourists, facing so many flat tires local leaders have stopped counting, surrendering to a pothole “of such frame-wrenching, tongue-biting proportions that people are now stopping to have their pictures taken beside it, and not always for insurance purposes.”
“This week, Secretary of the Agency of Natural Resources Deb Markowitz responded to a petition that the pothole be preserved and turned into a state park,” he continued, “by saying simply that might be the stupidest thing to cross my desk all winter, and that’s saying something.”
The studio audience laughed, as did Markowitz. (“It was fun getting a shout-out,” she says.) But drivers who know all but the state-park petition to be true aren’t in a joking mood this April Fools’ Day.
“2014 is shaping up to be one of the worst pothole seasons on record,” the Vermont Agency of Transportation confirms on a new special page on its website.
The state has spent $1.3 million so far this fiscal year to patch potholes from northernmost Alburgh to southernmost Vernon, but the problem keeps growing.
“It’s something legislators keep asking us about,” says George McCool, state assistant maintenance transportation administrator.
Who’s to blame? McCool points straight to the top: Mother Nature.
“We’ve had a lot more rain followed by a lot more colder weather,” he says. “The water gets in and underneath the pavement and the traffic knocks it loose.”
In Brattleboro, this “freeze-thaw cycle” began in February, when drivers of more than 20 vehicles — including a state police cruiser that had to be towed — reported flat tires on one particularly problematic mile of Route 9.
“After the first few weeks, people stopped calling,” says Hannah O’Connell, the town’s water and highway superintendent. “They realized it’s pothole season. But it has been a particularly difficult one this year.”
Michael Bosworth, president of the West Brattleboro Association, has written an open letter to federal and state officials in hopes of fixing the problem.
“Traffic has slowed to a crawl as everyone tries to avoid flat tires or damage to their undercarriages,” the businessman noted. “And this road is our gateway to southern Vermont, one of our prime skiing and tourist destinations?”
Sympathetic crews that have shoveled 2,500 tons of filler statewide point to several challenges. You can’t patch a pothole in too cold or wet weather or the fix won’t hold. And most asphalt plants close in the winter, requiring workers to figure out ways to crush and propane-heat their own mixtures.
“We’re trying to get out there as fast as we can and keep up,” McCool says. “But you just can’t throw something in and drive away.”
The state estimates it could be another month “until the weather changes over, the frost heaves begin to settle and the hot mix plants open for the season,” its website reports.
Until then? “We are all going to have to exercise a little patience, caution and common sense,” it advises, “when navigating the handiwork of nature’s jackhammer.”