Pothole predictions

Many of the potholes on Robert Street in West St. Paul have been filled in, but the question is how well those patches will hold until the pavement dries and crews can apply hot mix for a more permanent solution. (photos by Linda E. Andersen/Review)

Here’s the culprit: water. When the sun shines and weather warms, snowmelt finds its way into every nook and cranny, then, at night, the water freezes and expands, breaking the pavement around it. The next day, there’s more water coursing in. Enough cycles and heavy traffic can yield gallon-size potholes.

City public works say we’re in for a bumpy ride this spring

Could the growing number of craters in northern Dakota County roadways be a sign of an early spring? City officials aren’t so sure.

A number of cities say they’re holding off on patching potholes in earnest, and their reason seems rather bleak.

“We don’t think winter’s over yet,” a South St. Paul public works spokesperson said.

Filling and refilling potholes gets to be a huge expense, especially if cities do it before the freeze-thaw cycle has ended. During the winter months, cities mostly use a cold mix of blacktop to fill potholes, but the mix doesn’t stick as well as the hot mix that is available in the spring. 

Plowing also disrupts work on potholes, since the plow blades often reopen the holes after the patches are laid down.

With many cities waiting until spring weather to fill potholes, the daily game of “dodge the pothole” is far from over. In fact, now might just be beginning of pothole season.

“We might be getting more of them as the temperatures warm up,” West St. Paul city engineer Matt Saam said. “Now is the time, as temperatures start to warm up, when we say that the potholes will pop.”

Potholes numbers consistent

Potholes “pop” when water under the pavement freezes and expands, which causes the asphalt to crack. When the frozen water melts, it leaves a pocket of air in its wake, weakening the support of the pavement. Cars drive over the weakened pavement, it cracks and a pothole is born. 

With so many snowfalls and subzero temperatures this winter, people might expect to see more potholes than usual. But public works crews say that hasn’t been the case so far.  

“Our roads are in fairly decent conditions,” said Todd Howard, Dakota County assistant engineer. While potholes are apparent on county roads, he hasn’t noticed a significant increase since last year.  

South St. Paul, West St. Paul and Mendota Heights public works departments report they, too, haven’t noticed a significant increase in potholes this March.

But what they have noticed is an increase in the amount of plowing and salting necessary to keep the roads in safe driving conditions.

“We’ve spent more money treating roads with salt this year because of the cold,” Howard said. He said that salt treatments totaled about $75,000 more this winter than in previous ones, and that the county sold 1,200 tons more salt than anticipated.

Dakota County road crews also spent more time removing snow from intersections, especially in the rural parts of the county where the snow has been drifting.

Still, Howard said all this is nothing new in Minnesota. “We’re (staying) on track,” he said.

Dakota County may be on track, but many of its cities appear to be stretched thin. Mendota Heights, South St. Paul and West St. Paul all report struggling to keep pace with the frequent snows and stay on track with their snow-removal budgets.

Heavy winter costs

For Mendota Heights, this winter has been expensive.

“We’ve expended more than we would in a typical year just because of the number of (winter-weather) events,” public works director John Mazzitello said.

Mendota Heights, South St. Paul and West St. Paul declare a snow emergency when snow falls or accumulates to more than 2 or 3 inches. The frequency of snowfalls this year has meant more plowing and treating roads than average. 

“We’ve had so many snow events that plowing’s been horrendous,” the South St. Paul public works spokesperson said, adding that it’s put a huge strain on the department’s resources.

West St. Paul is facing similar situation.

“We’re getting dangerously close to using all of our annual allotment for salt,” Saam said. The funds that remain are intended for next November and December, he adds, meaning that West St. Paul is hoping spring weather arrives soon.

More traffic, more problems

Tackling the potholes will be a top priority when the weather finally warms up.

Cities report numbers that are consistent with past years, but that doesn’t mean the potholes aren’t a problem, especially on streets with heavier traffic. Busier roads, such as state-managed highways and county roads, tend to have more potholes than residential streets. And some areas are worse than others.

South Robert Street in West St. Paul is notorious for its pockmarked appearance. 

Saam said about half of the pothole complaints coming in to West St. Paul are regarding South Robert Street. It’s a state-owned road, so it falls under the responsibility of the Minnesota Department of Transportation.

However, West St. Paul hopes the road will be improved next year as part of a city-led reconstruction project, according to Saam. 

Because heavy traffic plays a large role in the creation of potholes, smaller cities in the region are having fewer issues with them.

Lilydale hasn’t had any problems - for obvious reasons. “We only have about 500 feet of road,” city administrator Mary Schultz said with a laugh. So far the tiny suburb has had no complaints about potholes.

Kaylin Creason can be reached at staffwriter@lillienews.com or at 651-748-7825.

How to Report Potholes

Minnesota Department of Transportation
Visit www.dot.state.mn.us and click on “Report a Pothole.”
Call 651-234-7110.

Inver Grove Heights
Visit www.ci.inver-grove-heights.mn.us and click on “Service Requests” at the bottom of the page. Under “Public Works,” select “Fill a Pothole/Street Damage.”  Log in to the Request Tracker tool to submit a report, or select “Anonymous” to make a report without logging in.

Mendota Heights
Visit www.mendota-heights.com, click on “Online Interactive Forms” on the left-hand side of the page and fill out the “Report a Pot Hole” form.

South St. Paul
Visit www.southstpaul.org and click on “Report a Concern” at the bottom of the page. Select “Potholes” from the “Public Works” category and fill out the pothole complaint form.

West St. Paul
Visit www.cityofwsp.org, scroll over “Online Services” at the top of the page and select “Pothole Reporting.”

Dakota County
Visit www.co.dakota.mn.us, click on “Transportation” at the top of the page, select “Contact Transportation” and then fill out the form regarding your roadway concerns.
Email hwy@co.dakota.mn.us.


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