Wheel-life catastrophe

Facing the worst potholes in years, cities rush to repair the asphalt scars of winter.

As cars weave down Clinton Street in Brooklyn, a gray Buick Century bounces on its shock absorbers, clunking into a pothole. "A lot of holes," says the driver, rolling down his window. "I'm losing things on my car all the time."

He's not alone: Driving in many parts of the country has become a teeth-rattling experience. After a long, snowy winter, roads from Spokane, Wash., to Richmond, Va., have stretches as cratered as the moon. Concerned about highway safety, some governors are declaring "pothole emergencies," with crews work-ing around the clock, throwing hot asphalt into ragged hollows.

"Our chief engineer says it's the worst pothole season since the late 1970s," says Lynda South, a spokeswoman for the Virginia Department of Transportation, which has filled 95,000 potholes in the past two weeks.

But the crater crisis comes at a time of budget crises, too. For example, Virginia officials say the big push this spring may mean grass will grow longer on the roadsides this summer. And federal relief is unlikely before the fall, when Congress reauthorizes its Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century, known as T-21. The latest version allocates $375 billion, up from $211 billion, over six years. Ninety percent would go to the states, funding projects and maintenance.

"There is a lot of flexibility and it would free up county and borough money that could be used for repairs," says Steve Hansen, a spokesman for the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

Of science fairs and hubcaps

In the meantime, though, potholes are creating unusual diversions. Ten-year-old Jeffrey Genest of Stoneham, Mass., did a science-fair project on how they form. He found a piece of asphalt - from a pothole, of course - and placed it in a bowl of water. Every night, it went into the freezer. During the day, it thawed out - just like a regular road.

"At the end of two weeks, we took it out and it broke into 13 pieces," recounts Jeffrey. "From a pothole, we made more potholes."

In Brooklyn, Meir Kahtan found "the mother of all potholes," which he describes as the size of a car - and three feet deep. It was so bad, he says, the city closed the road. "We took the kids to see it and we were concerned they'd fall in," he says. The city has now filled it, but Mr. Kahtan says the pothole has lots of nieces and nephews nearby.

New York's Department of Transportation calls this its worst pothole season since 1996. From July 1 through April 1, it has put asphalt bandages over 102,816 potholes. A night crew roams the city looking for the worst offenders.

Still, motorists describe highways that are "hubcap graveyards." "I have replaced more hubcaps in the last two years than I have in the last 40 years," says Stephen Eugster, a city councilman in Spokane, Wash. "This is the worst I have ever seen the roads: There are some streets where you can get your tires in the ruts and stop steering."

The ruts, says resident Lea Conner, are the result of studded tires, legal in winter. "The damp climate, combined with freezing temperatures, creates a road-maintenance nightmare."

Three years ago, a Spokane mayoral candidate made road repair a major part of his platform. Last year, a local weekly paper, the Pacific Northwest Inlander, ran a "Best Pothole" contest. (The winner: a "crack of doom" described as "a monster series of holes, an archipelago of crumbled blacktop that's big enough to bounce the sturdiest SUV.") Even places that are used to tough winters are complaining. Take Robbinsdale, Minn., a suburb of Minneapolis. According to City Manager Marcia Glick, a lack of insulating snow this winter meant the frost went deeper, pav-ing the way for asphalt chasms.

Will the potholes pay?

And it's not just the roads that suffer. Ask Edward Ford, a Dedham, Mass., resident who was driving in West Roxbury when his Maxima hit a pothole he measured as four by six and one foot deep: "I've never hit anything like that. The car shook and I shook."

The next day he went back - and discovered several abandoned hubcaps alongside the giant hole. But the shock came when he took his car to the shop. He had a broken wheel, a destroyed tire, and a broken strut assembly. The total bill: $1,540. Now, he's written the city asking for reimbursement.

Reimbursement for hitting a pothole? It may happen. Boston says once it determines who's responsible, it pays on a case-by-case basis. Since December 1 of last year, it's paid off 34 claims worth $18,036.11.

"We've had an unbelievable pothole season," says Lisa Pollack, a city spokeswoman.

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