Cars drive past a pothole on Eastwood Blvd in Centereach...

Cars drive past a pothole on Eastwood Blvd in Centereach on Feb. 10, 2015. Credit: Newsday / Thomas A. Ferrara

Another brutal winter has unleashed a pothole plague across Long Island and the metropolitan area, punishing roads and millions of motorists who rely on them.

And drivers who ultimately pay the bill ask why.

Highway departments, squeezed by budget restrictions, lack money for effective preventive maintenance. In addition, the region's roads are antiquated and need more attention just to carry the increasing daily volume of cars and heavy trucks.

Traffic on New York State's highways increased 21 percent between 1990 and 2013, even though the state's population only climbed 9 percent during the same period, according to an analysis by TRIP, a nonprofit transportation research group based in Washington, D.C.

Long Island is particularly vulnerable because of its lack of mass transit options and its dependence on roads and highways.

In 2012 alone, about 213,000 vehicles used the Long Island Expressway daily between Exit 37 and the New York City line and about 20 percent of those vehicles were trucks, state statistics show.

"Few people realize the magnitude of Long Island's daily traffic and the resulting wear and tear on our roads/pavement," state Department of Transportation spokeswoman Eileen Peters said.

Poor roads also take a financial toll on motorists.

Those thoroughfares cost area drivers an average of about $2,300 annually in extra operating costs, lost time, fuel and accident damage, according to TRIP.

"There are millions of potholes all over the place . . . They fix it, but they don't fix it right," said Marion Cifarelli, 45, of Babylon. "You go over it [a pothole] with your car and you're lucky if your teeth are still in your mouth."

Keeping potholes at bay

Maintenance is key, experts say, to reducing the number of those asphalt craters drivers are dodging daily.

Former NYC Transportation Commissioner Lucius T. Riccio said neglect, not winter, is the primary cause of potholes.

"There are many roads that get through the winter without potholes. That's because they've been resurfaced on the proper replacement cycle and maintained," he said. "Preventive medicine is the best medicine for people, and preventive maintenance is the best medicine for roads."

Larry Galehouse, director of the National Center for Pavement Preservation at Michigan State University, said potholes are a symptom of not enough preventive maintenance.

One root cause of potholes is water getting into cracks in the pavement, he said. In the Northeast, that's made worse by the freeze-thaw cycle in winter and spring, but it also causes potholes in moderate climates because the top layer of asphalt is softened by water, "and traffic on it becomes a pumping action" that causes it to break, he said.

A road with streaks of black tar may be a sign that local road crews are patching small problems before they become big ones, he said. The patching process, known as crack sealing, is the most common type of preventive maintenance.

"Seal cracks in the roadway in the spring and fall and you're not going to have potholes," Galehouse said.

But difficult funding choices make that process hard to accomplish.

Suffolk County, for example, now does far fewer crack sealing jobs, which help ward off potholes, than in years past, Public Works Commissioner Gilbert Anderson said.

"You had cracks in the road and, basically, the crews would go out and put out hot tar to fill them in," Anderson said. "It's difficult with everybody's budget and manpower and staffing. It just isn't there anymore."

And because there is not enough money, highway officials can't keep up with the proper repairs, experts say.

Patching cheaper

"It's much cheaper to do simple overlays [patching a road] . . . than to have to reconstruct subsurfaces," said TRIP research and policy director Rocky Moretti, who contends many highway officials would prefer to resurface a battered road than keep patching it, but are hamstrung by finances. "Of course, you have to have the resources to allow you to do those types of repairs. . . . The challenge is, primarily, one of funding."

Funding for road repair comes from federal, state and local coffers.

The Federal Highway Trust Fund, which gave $2 billion to New York State in 2013 and provides 40 percent of the funding for state road and bridge projects, is in danger of becoming insolvent by May 31, officials said.

"The problems we have are problems we have around the country," said Richard Barone, transportation director for the Regional Plan Association, a Manhattan-based research group. "There's just not enough money. We don't have enough money."

Currently, more than a third of New York's county and municipal roads are in poor condition, according to a TRIP study released last month. The group estimated that annual funding for the state's aging roads -- many built just after World War II -- would need to increase 36 percent just to keep them in their current condition for another 10 years.

"An old road that has not been resurfaced anytime recently is going to be more susceptible to developing potholes," said Robert Sinclair Jr. of AAA New York. "We're not spending nearly what we should be spending on major resurfacing, if not rebuilding, projects."

Further muddying the financial challenges in New York is the fact that additional dollars for roadwork aren't necessarily spent on construction or repair.

State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli said New York, where the Department of Transportation said it spent $317 million in 2012-13 on pavement projects, routinely diverts money from highway construction and repair to daily operations.

DiNapoli -- in a report last year -- said state officials used $1.6 billion in the 2012-13 fiscal year from the state's Dedicated Highway and Bridge Trust Fund to pay for daily expenses, such as snow and ice removal and salaries at the Department of Motor Vehicles.

After the state pays debt service on the bonds used to finance construction projects, and diverts money for operating expenses, about 23.5 percent of the trust fund for the 2014-15 state budget will go toward road projects, DiNapoli said.

Counties, towns and other localities maintain 80 percent of roads in the nation, compared with just 20 percent paved by states, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. And insufficient funding from the federal government to the state can result in reduced cash to Long Island counties and towns, according to Long Island Contractors Association executive director Marc Herbst.

Funding for the state's Consolidated Highway Improvement Program, which helps pay for local roads projects throughout the state, remained flat in fiscal year 2013-14 at $438 million -- the same as in 2012-13. It was also flat for the five years before 2012, when it was increased by 21 percent.

A spokesman for Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo did not respond about how the final budget agreement reached with the State Legislature would fund local roads projects.

"If that dries up, then the state doesn't have the ability to assist the localities. And localities are strapped by local property taxes," said Herbst, of the Highway Improvement Program. "What do you do then? You don't regularly do the routine maintenance that you need to do."

Quick fixes not enough

State officials say that patching and repaving are both necessary, but they typically resurface roads based on a schedule and their condition as they near the end of their useful life.

For instance, the state last year resurfaced a 4.6-mile stretch of the Long Island Expressway between Exit 37 and the Nassau/Queens border for $7.8 million, according to the DOT. In 2013, the state's maintenance costs -- including for such items as pothole repairs, re-striping lanes and other work -- along that same stretch were $11,800.

Peters, of the DOT, said the typical life span of that completely repaved stretch of the LIE is about 12 years, "depending on weather cycles, volume of traffic and other variables."

A properly applied asphalt patch of a pothole can last months, or even a year, according to Bruce Barkevich, vice president of the asphalt division of the NY Construction Materials Association. A poorly applied cold patch may last only a few days.

Still, the huge cost disparity between long-term investments and short-term fixes often factors into decisions made by financially stretched highway departments, experts said.

"There is tremendous pressure, not just on highway supervisors, but on elected officials, to keep costs down," said Cornell University engineer David Orr.

The Federal Highway Administration recommends that so-called Superpave mix, or Superior Performing Asphalt Pavement, be used in road projects. But funding problems mean municipalities often must use less expensive forms of asphalt that do not last as long as others in order to cover more territory, experts say.

In addition, if departments do not use the materials correctly, experts say, potholes will appear sooner than they should.

"Good construction practices [are] key," said Tom Harman, pavement and materials technical service team manager for the Federal Highway Administration Resource Center. "Use Superpave and apply poorly and get a bad outcome. Use lesser paving and better laydown and you get a better road."

Orr said officials sometimes use common, cold asphalt during winter -- when hot asphalt plants are not in operation -- and do not compact the cold patch by rolling the rear wheels of a truck over it. So potholes are likely to re-form more quickly, experts say.

Orr said a cold patch, with the addition of polymers that act as an adhesive, lasts much longer than the simple patch, but costs more.

Faith Silverman, 42, of Birdseye Circle in Stony Brook, said she has been pleading with Brookhaven Town highway officials for more than a year to properly address her neighborhood's pockmarked roads.

So ravaged by potholes, cracks and ruts are Silverman's neighborhood streets that parents are afraid to let their children play on them any time of year out of fear for their safety.

"It is disgraceful and it's only getting worse," she said.

Frank Petrignani, spokesman for the Brookhaven Town Highway Department, said the town typically responds to reports of potholes in a "timely manner," but acknowledged the emphasis so far this winter has been on making roads "safe and passable" after recent snowstorms.

"Obviously, some roadways get in worse condition as the winter months go along . . . We need to re-evaluate the roadways after the winter season," said Petrignani, adding that Silverman's neighborhood is scheduled to be repaved later this year.

The typically rough weather in the Northeast, particularly its freeze-thaw cycles in the winter and spring, puts further stress on the region's roads.

That cycle is exacerbated when roadway material is subjected to sharp temperature changes -- such as the 50-degree swing Long Island experienced during the first week of January 2014 when the temperature dropped from 55 degrees to near zero in one 24-hour period.

Given the winters, state and local funding woes, and the heavy volume of traffic, the best motorists can hope for is pothole mitigation, not pothole elimination, transportation experts concede.

"Not all roads are designed to handle the loads we have today, so we are still fighting history," Orr said. "But you're going to get some potholes, even when you do everything right."

Facts about road repair:

Federal Highway Administration funding to New York increased by 11 percent from $1.8 billion in 2008 to $2 billion in 2013.

Driving on deficient roadways can cost the average New York City-area motorist $2,300 a year in extra vehicle operating costs, lost time, fuel, and accident damage, according to a 2014 TRIP study.

Forty-seven percent of New York's locally maintained roads are in need of "rehabilitation, preservation or reconstruction" and 15 percent were rated poor.

States spent a collective $20.4 billion annually on new roads between 2009 and 2011, while spending $16.5 billion annually on repair and maintenance in the same period, according to Smart Growth America.

Annual funding for roads would need to increase 36 percent just to keep them in their current state for another 10 years, the TRIP study says.

One truck does the damage of 20,000 cars, according to AAA.

The state pothole hotline received 266 calls through this February, compared with 481 through February 2014.

New York drivers are legally prohibited by the state from holding it responsible for vehicle damage costs incurred from November to May.

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