Ricocheting temperatures combined with rain and snow have triggered an early pothole season, challenging drivers and road repair crews, industry representatives and public officials say.
Precipitation with freeze-thaw cycles "are a perfect recipe for a bumper pothole season," AAA New York spokesman Robert Sinclair Jr. said Thursday.
"They're breaking out all over, the sheer volume and all in different sizes, shapes, and depths has been quite astounding as a result of this insane weather," he said.
And meteorologists warn the current freeze-thaw cycle could continue.
About 7:45 a.m. Thursday, a half-dozen cars could be seen disabled on the eastbound Long Island Expressway just east of Exit 50 after hitting a pothole there. There have been similar reports of multiple cars disabled from roads breaking up on the Belt Parkway and near The Apartments, between the George Washington and Alexander Hamilton bridges.
Already, this winter has been harsh on the state Department of Transportation's road maintenance budget.
DOT crews on Long Island have begun patching potholes on most state roads. Those repairs began sooner than the typical February-March start, owing to colder temperatures early and the resulting, more frequent freeze/thaw cycles, agency spokeswoman Eileen Peters said.
The DOT has spent more than 40 percent more for pothole repairs from October to Jan. 2 of this year, compared with the same time period a year prior. During that period a year earlier, the DOT's Long Island crews used about 115 tons of asphalt to repair potholes. Since October, they've used 285 tons, Peters said.
This time of year, fluctuating temperatures are not uncommon on Long Island, said David Stark, meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Upton. "The key difference this year, however, is the sheer drop from the 50s into single digits, followed by a more gradual warming trend. And each time it's warmed so far this month, we have had rain that may be playing a role in what the roads are experiencing."
The weekend forecast calls for temperatures again in the 50s, with more rain, followed by overnight lows next week dipping well below freezing -- prime conditions for the creation of potholes.
The situation might seem a boon for road-paving companies, but the extreme cold has also presented hurdles. Last week, Scatt Materials Asphalt of Deer Park had to temporarily close down because raw materials froze, said company vice president Tom Pratt.
The rash of potholes has prompted warnings from Marc Herbst, head of the Long Island Contractors Association, of asphalt shortages after declining infrastructure spending in recent years led to less asphalt production capacity on Long Island. If there's a rush on orders by municipalities, some stretches of road may have to wait, leading to bigger, costlier future repairs, he said.
Peters said the state DOT has had no problem obtaining sufficient asphalt for pothole repairs in the past and does not anticipate a problem this season.
Cold asphalt is always available from a plant or by DOT crews mixing it themselves. It generally holds for a couple of weeks, while hot asphalt repairs generally last a season, she said.
Avoiding the pothole pitfall
AAA New York advises:
Keep your eyes peeled and don't tailgate: if you're right up against the driver in front you, won't have enough time to see a pothole and react.
Keep tires properly inflated: when you drop into a pothole and hit the edge, given enough speed and with insufficient air pressure, that tire will compact enough to hit the rim. Damage to either the internal structure of the tire or the rim can be enough to cause a flat and leave you stranded.
Don't forget to carry a spare: a lot of new cars come without spare tires so the vehicle weighs less to help meet fuel economy requirements.
IF YOU HIT ONE:
It can be costly: In an October report, TRIP, a Washington D.C.-based roadway watchdog group that analyzes government data, found drivers in the New York City-Newark area pay on average $673 annually in vehicle maintenance attributable to problems caused by roads in poor condition. Costs can range from fixing a flat to thousands of dollars if the damage involves suspension or steering components.
Check your insurance: Collision coverage may cover the cost.
If not: Making a claim against a municipality can be complicated. You need to know whether the pothole site was on a state, county, town, village or city road and then call the appropriate jurisdiction. Most towns require notice of claims to be sent to the town clerk's office by certified mail. Others want that notice sent to the town attorney's office. For Suffolk County roads, for instance, all information should be sent to the Department of Public Works in Yaphank. If your vehicle was damaged on a state road after Nov. 15 and before May 1, when pothole damage is most likely to happen, New York State law specifically excludes that period from liability.
TO CALL TO REPORT A POTHOLE:
Call your town if it's on a local road.
For a Nassau County roadway, call: 516-571-6900
For Suffolk County roads: 631-852-4070
For a NY State road: 1-800-POTHOLE
SOURCES: AAA New York, NYS Department of Transportation, news reports