Long Island drivers have had their share of busted tires and bent rims from hitting potholes already this winter, and more are likely on their way.

"The pothole season has started early, very definitely. It's usually March and April and we started in January this year," Robert Sinclair, spokesman for AAA New York, said.

He said there was a marked increase in calls for help from motorists in Nassau and Suffolk counties in January and February, jumping to 46,077 calls in first two months of this year from 36,953 in the same period last year.

Calls for flat tires increased to 8,890 from 7,370 in the same period last year, he said.

"We're seeing lots of damaged tires and rims. On some more expensive cars, these components can be really expensive indeed, $300 for a tire, $1,000 for a rim," Sinclair said.

Chris Pendl, a mechanic at Family Automotive Service Center in Coram, said the repair business picked up after much of the snow melted, leaving icy chunks and peaks.

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"They [cars] bend, they break, they crack, greases start coming out, they get noisy and then the wheels come off," Pendl said.

When it was snowing, business was slow because people couldn't get around as much and put off repairs as long as they could. "Now we'll see the problems," he said.

The state Department of Transportation does not count individual potholes, but it had sharply higher costs for asphalt patching its Long Island roads in the first two months of the year, an indication of the severity of the pothole problem, spokeswoman Eileen Peters said.

It used 1,180 tons of asphalt at a cost of $1.97 million this January and February, compared with 859 tons at a cost of $831,329 for the first two months of last year, she said.

"It is probably safe to say NYSDOT has already repaired tens of thousands of potholes on state roadways this year," Peters said.

"And yes, the pothole season is well under way due to the relatively early cold temperatures and the constant fluctuating temperatures that have caused more frequent freeze/thaw cycles, which is what keeps creating more potholes and requiring crews to make repeated repairs in the same area," she said.

The Town of Southampton had to use less durable cold patches on potholes for much of January and February because no nearby asphalt plants were running in the cold weather, Alex Gregor, the superintendent of highways, said.

Brookhaven Highways Superintendent Dan Losquadro voiced a similar complaint, but said one plant reopened recently and another is scheduled to reopen this week. "We're attacking the problem every day," he said.

Nassau County had a spike in potholes this year, jumping to 5,000 so far, while it had about 1,000 for all of last year, Michael Martino, a spokesman for the Department of Public Works, said.

Suffolk County filled 170 potholes on county roads so far this year, spokeswoman Vanessa Baird-Streeter said, about a 28 percent increase over the same period last year.

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Garden City attorney Salvatore Marinello said Long Island may have its problems, but New York City is worse.

"Potholes? You think the LIE is bad, the BQE [Brooklyn-Queens Expressway] should no longer qualify as a highway. It's one big pothole," the attorney said last week after returning to Long Island from a court appearance in the city.

The FDR Drive had so many potholes around 49th Street that two of the three southbound lanes were closed for six hours overnight on Feb. 17 and the old pavement was stripped and new pavement laid, the city's Department of Transportation said.

Potholes generally occur in the areas with the heaviest traffic, and that could be seen in the tiny Nassau County village of South Floral Park, population about 1,700 and one-tenth of a square mile in size. "We have no reports of potholes this season," Marlene Melendez, the village's deputy clerk-treasurer, said last week.

Asked when a pothole was last reported in the village, she put a caller on hold.

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Coming back on the line a few minutes later, she said, "Last year we had one, we think." With Ted Phillips