Patch work: With car damage and frayed nerves, Northampton contends with worst pothole season in years

Last modified: Monday, April 07, 2014
NORTHAMPTON — When Deborah Keisch sunk into a ginormous pothole on South Street returning home from work last month, it wasn’t pretty.

“It was at night and I was trying to avoid them, but the streets were wet and I didn’t see that one,” said Keisch, who lives on Revell Avenue. “The tire was completely gone.”

Keisch said the mechanic who came to her rescue told her he had fixed seven flat tires caused by the same pothole, which she said the city finally filled this week.

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An irritant for drivers every spring, this year’s potholes are much worse than usual, making them a hot topic on social media sites and neighborhood computer message boards.

Madison Avenue resident Devorah Levy said when she posted a message on a South Street neighborhood list serve this week asking people to share pothole stories, responses came fast and furious.

“We have potholes every year, but this year they are on a level that I’ve never seen before,” said Levy. “Everybody that I talk to is just aghast.”

Northampton officials contend they are well aware of the problem — and are working furiously to fix potholes all over the city’s 150 miles of paved streets.

“We’re not turning a blind eye to anything, the problem is there are so many potholes we can’t get to them fast enough,” said Richard Parasiliti Jr., highway superintendent for the Department of Public Works.

Mayor David J. Narkewicz knows people are frustrated about potholes. He assures residents they are being filled, though maybe not as fast as people like.

“I realize that it can be tricky out there on the roads, I drive on them too,” Narkewicz said. “Our crews are working hard and we’ve been brainstorming ways to enhance operations.”

Thanks to a rough freeze-and-thaw cycle of winter, a massive backlog of roads in dire need of repairs and a limited number of street division employees to fill the holes, the pothole season this year is shaping up to be one of “epic proportions,” said Terry Culhane, chairman of the Board of Public Works.

“Crews are straight out trying to deal with it,” Culhane said. “It’s just been an awful year. Northampton is not alone in this problem.”

For the last two weeks, the city has had two four-person crews working on pothole duty 40 hours a week, and will add overtime hours to get the job done, according to Parasiliti.

He said this season is worse for a couple of reasons. The winter saw sustained periods of deeper cold than typical, which he said allowed the frost to go deeper in roads not insulated by snow cover. Second, he said, is the abysmal shape of city roads.

“It created like a double whammy, in a sense,” he said.

On some streets, he said, there have been so many fixes for so many years, the original roadbeds are gone.

“Pomeroy Terrace looks like a quilt sewn together with all these patches,” said Parasiliti.

The problem is when a patch job is fixed with another patch job, the fix doesn’t take.

The solution, he said, will be to repave particularly troublesome roads, and to that end, he’s working on a blacktop paving list that will be put out to bid.

Still, Levy, the Madison Avenue resident, said she thinks the city has not made fixing the holes enough of a priority, given how dangerous it is when drivers swerve to avoid them.

Keisch isn’t sure about that. She just hopes the city has a plan to deal with what she believes is a safety hazard. “I understand that the city is overwhelmed right now,” Keisch said. “All the roads seem bad.”

Frustrating situation

Many residents are reporting potholes to the city through a “request tracker” notification system on its website.

Parasiliti and a senior foreman for the DPW are in the field daily assessing streets and identifying the most troubled spots. He said he appreciates it when people call in to alert the DPW as new spots develop and hopes residents will be patient as crews work to fix them.

Some of the potholes are small, while others have grown to considerable size. These are the ones that the crews are attempting to address first.

“We prioritize the potholes that are truly potholes which means the pavement is gone and you’ve gotten to the gravel underneath,” said Parasiliti.

The challenge, Culhane said, is that potholes can pop up overnight, much faster than crews can patch them all. Now that the freeze-thaw cycle is nearly over, crews should be able to make a more noticeable dent in the problem.

Parasiliti said the city in March ran out of its supply of asphalt that it softens into so-called “hot boxes” to make road patches. That means DPW crews travel to Springfield each day to pick up asphalt, which eats up a lot of time. Crews are laying 20 tons of asphalt a day, Narkewicz said.

So far this season, crews have used 150 tons of asphalt filling potholes.

Deteriorating roads

Culhane believes the real issue behind the potholes plaguing the city is the number of roads that are deteriorating faster than they can be replaced, a result of inadequate Chapter 90 money from the state.

In recent years, the city has repaved about 1.5 miles of the 150-plus miles of road, hardly enough.

“The roads are slowly falling off a cliff,” Culhane said.

The DPW estimates that the backlog of street paving has now reached $39 million, up from $21.5 million five years ago. In the past three years, the budget for repairing potholes has grown sixfold to $150,000 per year, according to a five-year capital plan the mayor presented to the City Council Thursday night.

Resurfacing roads will decrease the amount of time the department spends on costly and time-consuming pothole repairs.

“If the city was to complete all work necessary, over the next 10 years only $5.5 million would be needed to maintain these streets at optimum levels,” the report states.

The capital plan aims to address some of the shortage by funneling about $3 million into street repairs over the next five years, including $500,000 next fiscal year. That money would be added to the Chapter 90 money the city receives from the state.

Culhane said the DPW is beginning to rethink its approach to see if there’s a better way to use the limited amount of money it gets each year.

For example, instead of one big project a year, officials are exploring whether using that money to repair smaller portions of more streets makes better sense. Or perhaps the city should alternate a big project one year with many smaller projects the next year.

He wants this plan to be in writing and clearly explained to the public.

The department uses a pavement management system, but that system misses many hot spots.

How to get help

Meanwhile, potholes can cause significant damage to vehicles, and in some cases, residents can be reimbursed. To do so, a resident may file a claim with the city in writing within 30 days of the incident, along with receipts or photos to the City Clerk’s office in City Hall.

The claim will be sent directly to the city’s insurance company for handling, just like claims against the city for negligence and other wrongful acts. The insurance company would then research and rule on the claim.

The claims used to be heard by the council’s Ordinance Committee, but the council dropped that function last summer on the advice of City Solicitor Alan Seewald.