Potholes in the eastbound lanes of Route 25A in Roslyn...

Potholes in the eastbound lanes of Route 25A in Roslyn threaten motorists' tires. (Feb. 2, 2011) Credit: Newsday / Alejandra Villa

Potholes, that perennial menace, are riddling Long Island roads and rattling drivers as they invade weeks ahead of their typical March-to-April appearance - and warmer wet weather this week may bring an "explosion" of new ones.

The craters are the latest indignity in a winter that has pummeled the region with just about every variation of storm Mother Nature has in her arsenal. They're causing even more stress for municipalities struggling with tightened budgets and battling to keep roads clear of snow and ice.

Nassau County on Friday announced it has set up a pothole hotline (516-571-6900) as well as an e-mail address (pothole_emergencies@nassaucountyny.gov) so drivers can call or send in reports of new craters. 

Count Joann Howell among the Long Island drivers unhappily familiar with the pothole's sickening jolt. Howell, 40, a nurse from Wheatley Heights, was driving her Nissan south on New Highway in Melville last week when - bang! It was the distinctive, jarring feeling of driving into a pothole and blowing out a tire. Then she felt it again.

"It was tremendous. I dropped right into it and I jerked up," Howell said. "The tires went down immediately. Both tires."

Weather wreaks havoc

The pothole problem has manifested earlier and worse than usual, both motorists and transportation officials say.

Total winter snowfall to date at Brookhaven National Laboratory - including the Dec. 26-27 blizzard - is 55.5 inches, and January set a record as the snowiest month on the Island since records began being kept there in 1947, with 35.7 inches.

And this week's weather could make matters worse, The Long Island Contractors' Association said in an "emergency warning." The "relatively mild temperatures, a steady rainfall, melting snow and a coming deep freeze" by Friday are likely to lead to "a literal explosion of new potholes," the group that represents more than 150 contractors said. Potholes form when water seeps into cracks and freezes; the constant expansion and contraction during the winter causes the asphalt to break up.

Tariq Chudry, owner of Tariq Auto Service on Route 110 in Melville near a rumbly section of Old Country Road, said he's averaging three or four customers a day with blown-out tires and bent wheel rims.

"It's good for business, but it upsets them," said Chudry, who said repair costs can reach several hundred dollars depending upon a car's make and model. One BMW driver racked up $750 in repairs from tire and wheel damage, he said.

The abundance of potholes presents a unique challenge because most government agencies are clearing roads at this time in the winter, not repairing them, said Eileen Peters, regional spokeswoman for the state Department of Transportation.

"We're in snow cleanup mode here," Peters said.

Potholes appear on county roads anytime a cold snap is followed by a thaw, Nassau County highway superintendent John Gallo said. But the worst time for potholes is typically mid-March through mid-April.

"This is a little earlier than normal," Gallo said.

Bad time for road work

Town road supervisors - most of whom were unable to provide a precise tally of new craters on their roads - said the early arrival of pothole season presents two problems. First, because asphalt plants don't start making hot asphalt until March or April, crews are relying on less reliable and temporary "cold patches" to fill holes.

Second, they said, with so much snow still on the ground, it's difficult to spare manpower to fill road cavities.

"We're so busy just trying to keep the roads clear," said Collin Nash, spokesman with the Town of North Hempstead. "We give that priority over mending potholes right now."

The pothole epidemic also may prove expensive to some municipalities. Kevin Mulligan, commissioner of public works for Long Beach, said the city plans to spend $75,000 on cold patch and at least $200,000 to have a pothole-only crew as soon as they are done plowing the streets. "Our budgets are stretched thin, but we are certainly going to have crews dedicated to it," Mulligan said.

In the Town of Islip, where the road department has filled 675 potholes so far, officials said the problem seems worse than in previous years. "Although there are still major issues concerning the recent snow and ice storms, we are still identifying potholes," said Richard Baker, director of public works.

Some officials, however, said they were not experiencing a proliferation of potholes any worse than in most years. Tim Ruggeri, spokesman for the Town of Babylon, said the town's "ambitious" road repair program put Babylon on good footing to withstand the tough winter. Officials in Oyster Bay told a similar story.

Peters said while a plethora of potholes may have arrived a bit early, the DOT has not received a high number of complaints from drivers. She attributed that to recent completion of several resurfacing projects on major state roads, including the Southern State Parkway and Montauk Highway. "The pavement is in much better condition," she said.

Barbara Olsen, 46, of Massapequa, counted herself fortunate to have avoided a huge pothole on the northbound Wantagh State Parkway between the Southern State Parkway and Hempstead Turnpike exits. "There were six cars with people changing their tires," Olsen said.

Pothole safety

Watch those puddles
Assume every one is a pothole, American Automobile Spokesman Robert Sinclair Jr. said.

Keep control
Hold on to the steering wheel with two hands.

Take it slow
Try not to swerve wildly to miss a pothole. Slow down if impact is imminent, but don’t slam the brakes as you hit it; heavy braking compresses the front suspension and can force the tire and wheel down into the pothole, instead of gliding over, according to Ford Motor Co.

Monitor tires
Some mechanics advise under-inflating tires so they have a little bit of “give” when they hit a hole. But the AAA advises doing the opposite — slightly overinflating. That prevents the tires from compressing too much when they hit a pothole’s edge, AAA says.

Avoid tailgating
Keep a close eye on the car in front of you — if it suddenly swerves, a pothole may be waiting, the AAA warns.

With Stacey Altherr, Aisha Al-Muslin, Denise M. Bonilla, Emily C. Dooley, Mitchell Freedman, Paul LaRocco, Jennifer Maloney, Deborah S. Morris and Nicholas Spangler 

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