Granite Geek: Is this the worst year ever for potholes and mud season?

  • A pothole is seen along Hoit Road in East Concord on Tuesday. Geoff Forester / Monitor staff

  • Two potholes filled with water along Hoit Road in East Concord on Tuesday, March 19, 2019. Geoff Forester—Monitor staff

  • Two potholes filled with water as a truck approaches on Hoit Road in East Concord on Tuesday, March 19, 2019. Geoff Forester—Monitor staff

  • Concord city workers patch up potholes on Shaker Road on Thursday. A total of 3,883 potholes were reported in Concord this winter. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • Concord city worker Taran Cullen patches up a pothole on Shaker Road on Thursday, March 21, 2019. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Concord city workers patch up potholes on Shaker Road on Thursday, March 21, 2019. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 3/21/2019 5:15:10 PM

As all drivers know, every year seems to be the worst year ever for potholes – but rattling over some of Concord’s streets recently, it’s clear that this year really is the worst.

Just look at the numbers: About 4,000 potholes have been reported by highway crews since the start of the year, according to the city streets department.

Four thousand of them! That must be a record, right?

“To be honest, last year was much worse. We had about 8,000 potholes at this time,” Jim Major, Concord’s highways superintendent, said Wednesday.

“It always seems every year is the worst, when you’re in the middle of it,” said Major.

Which is not to say that roads aren’t having problems as spring gets closer.

The villain in road maintenance is what the freeze-thaw cycle does with water, the only common substance that gets less dense when it changes from liquid to solid. To put it more simply: Water expands when it freezes.

When a winter day is warm, the ice and snow thaws and water flows into any cracks in the surface of a paved street or fills empty spaces among grains sand or gravel of a dirt road. When the temperature falls at night, the water freezes and expands, cracking the pavement or breaking up the dirt road. Cars drive over these small problems and make them bigger, allowing more water to enter during the next thaw.

Result: Potholes or deep mud.

This year’s erratic winter, which vacillated between heavy rains and extreme cold, locked moisture in the ground so that the melting snow doesn’t drain away easily.

“There’s a lot of water in the ground, it’s highly saturated. As that water freezes and thaws, you get a lot of activity underneath the street – that’s going to affect both the dirt roads and the paved roads,” said Chip Chesley, director of General Services for Concord, the department that includes streets and roads.

So far the damage is most obvious on dirt roads, which judging from the amount of wailing and lamentation on social media, are having an epic early mud season. And it’s probably going to get worse: the return of freezing temperatures on Tuesday temporarily halted the melting that has turned roads to mud.

“I have seen mud seasons ... where car parts are left in the road. We haven’t gotten that bad yet. Next week, it might be: it’s going to warm up and we’re going to get rain,” said John O’Connor, road agent in Canterbury.

At the Loudon Garage, the tow truck is waiting to haul out vehicles who get stuck in the mud.

“It’s been freezing up again, but I’m sure within the next week it will get warm and I expect it will get busy again,” said owner Matt Smith. “It was getting pretty close Friday and Saturday, but it just froze up.”

Smith said a big customer is oil companies, whose heavy trucks have to make it to even the most remote of homes when a customer is facing the potential loss of heat. “A lot of them have to go on the back roads,” he said. “They get stuck.”

And he’s sympathetic – just look at his home in Loudon.

“I had to leave my truck at home and walk out. I have a paved driveway but I’m on a dirt road. ... it was a foot and half deep; I would have bogged down if I’ve tried driving,” he said.

Holy potholes

This chart shows the number of potholes reported by crews with the Concord highway department between Jan. 1 and March 20 of each year:

        Year     Potholes

■2015     3,563

■2016     4,900

■2017     4,234

■2018     8,009

■2019     3,883

David Brooks bio photo

David Brooks is a reporter and the writer of the sci/tech column Granite Geek and blog, as well as moderator of Science Cafe Concord events. After obtaining a bachelor’s degree in mathematics he became a newspaperman, working in Virginia and Tennessee before spending 28 years at the Nashua Telegraph . He joined the Monitor in 2015.

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