“I’m fixing a hole where the rain gets in, and stops my mind from wondering where it will go”
— The Beatles, “Fixing a Hole”
A couple months back, I was actually listening to “Fixing a Hole,” grooving on that psychedelic pop classic, driving eastbound on Colborne St., crossing Angeline St. I passed a cop and she gave me a good long look — as well she should, because I either looked impaired or like I was pretending to be a NASCAR driver warming up my tires.
But my serpentine path wasn’t deliberately criminal. I was just trying to avoid the manhole covers (my bad: I’m pretty sure I’m supposed to call them ‘sewer access covers’ in this day and age.) You see, I have friends with higher heels than my little sub-compact has clearance to the road.
And for my little Toyota some of these potholes aren’t holes, more like chasms into hell. A month or so back, local chitchat included talk about a woman who actually lost a wheel in one of these monstrosities.
We’ve probably all been sent a meme on social media stating with humorous authority that we have two seasons in Canada: winter and potholes. And let’s face it, most of us like to complain about both. And for some of us, complaining about potholes is like a gateway drug that takes us to complaining about city workers, taxes and government in general. If anything, I like to be at least an informed complainer so I call the city for some information.
I start with the basics and find out “a pothole is a type of failure in an asphalt pavement, caused by the presence of water in the underlying soil structure and the presence of traffic passing over the affected area.” I live in the country – so that means the tire-killers I often drive over/into on the unpaved roads near me aren’t technically potholes (I usually use a more salty description anyway.) And repairing this type of road damage isn’t even included in the $1.758 million allocated to potholes in the 2018 operating budget.
That is a mind-blowing amount — taken out of context. But we are the second-largest single tier municipality by land area in the province. We have 5,400 km of road lanes to repair and only 38,444 households to pay for repairing them — and just 75,423 people.
So we have a lot of road and a small tax base, yet our roads still have to be repaired. I talk to the city staff person ultimately responsible for fixing our roads, Director of Public Works Bryan Robinson has a P.Eng which makes him, I guess, a Roads Scholar. (Thank you. Thank you very much.)
I mention to him that local businessman Paul Lagham had sent me some research on a product called a sewer access riser, basically a ring that goes around a sewer manhole. Bryan points out to me that there are lots of products like that, but the real issue is the quality of the road construction. And that’s the problem: half of our treated roads are considered “sub-standard” or not constructed to today’s standards.
I also ask Bryan about the two methods of repairing, cold-patch and hot-patch. Cold patching can be done in almost all weather conditions but it is expensive. The average repair lasts only 35 days. That pesky rim-wrecker you swerve to avoid has to be repaired over 10 times a year on average by this method.
So if it seems to you like the city ‘just repaired that’ — you aren’t going crazy, they probably did. Hot patch material costs 33 per cent less per tonne and the repairs last an average of 84 days: A no brainer, right? The problem is that this method requires additional capital expenditures like ‘hot-boxes’ for the back of trucks. Another wrinkle: local availability of this product also affects when the city can use the method.
Robinson informs me that his department is in the midst of a core services review on pot hole repairing, stating, “we are targeting mid-2018 for a supplemental presentation to Council on pot holes. Staff are still reviewing the program and collecting data on alternatives and respective technologies.” The review also includes an examination of ‘proper repair techniques’.
The city can currently dispatch up to nine crews to repair potholes. In the city backgrounder, they call this work “labour intensive.” Having once worked on a road repair crew for three years, I can tell you “labour intensive” is not how I would describe it. This is brutal work. My back still hurts thinking about it, and it’s been a few years.
City Council has also allocated funds into a new $1.2 million program called “road lifecycle extension.” I’m not fluent in bureaucratese, but I translate that to mean ‘repair roads sooner so they last longer’ and that sounds sensible, to me at least.
So we have some challenges, including more frequent freeze-thaw cycles, which make our problem even worse. So now I don’t just have to worry about my Goodyears as I am letting the road stir my coffee. I get to think about climate change.
Although as Robinson points out, “variations in climate change and its impact on road infrastructure are still being reviewed by the industry as a whole.”
So what to do? For starters we can report potholes. The city itself says that it relies on “complaints” in addition to the “regular road patrols.” If you think your vehicle has been damaged by a pothole, the City says “residents that believe their vehicle was damaged as a result of the City’s negligence can submit a claim. The process is identified on the City’s website”
As for me, I will follow the results of the pothole review with great interest. I’ll crank my stereo and I won’t let the sound of my own wheels drive me crazy, preferring to imagine that life is a (well-paved) highway.