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Holy Potholes, Batman! What happened to our roads?!

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Photo by Audra Mearns Photo by Audra Mearns

This year, spring break up turned into "spring fall-apart-completely."

Visitors to Bonner and Boundary counties these days could be forgiven for thinking there’s a lot of impaired drivers on the road as pilots of cars, trucks and SUVs bob and weave their way around and through the potholes that litter area roadways.

Does it seem to you like spring break-up this year is a lot worse than normal? If it does, you’re in good company: Governor Butch Otter added Bonner, Boundary and Shoshone counties to the state’s declaration of disaster in mid April, just days after Bonner County declared its own State of Emergency over the condition of the roads. Officials have said the cost of repairs this year will far exceed the money available to pay for them.

So what happened? Part of the explanation has to do with how roads are constructed. Think of a road as being like... a Mississippi Mud Pie. The chocolate kind of mud pie. The bottom layer (shell) of the highway pie is dirt. The carmelly fudge filling on top of that is mud. The ice cream filling is gravel. Then layer more fudge (asphalt) on top. And top it all off with mounds of whipped cream or, in a road’s case, snow and rain.

Asphalt, like a new car that loses value the minute you drive it out of the showroom, begins to fall apart almost as soon as it’s put down. The weight of cars and trucks causes cracks to develop in the asphalt—the more (or heavier) the traffic, the faster the cracks develop.

Water travels through the cracks and soaks into the gravel underneath. If it gets cold enough for that water to freeze while it’s still in the gravel or near the top of the dirt, it pushes up the asphalt roadbed. When the ground warms, the soil and gravel return to their normal level, leaving pockets of air under the asphalt that further weaken the road.

Come spring, this process is compounded as the dirt begins to warm—that unfrozen dirt can become a soupy, gooey mess.

And spring rain, along with our spring snow, adds even more water into the mix. Plus, as surrounding soil becomes saturated with water, failing culverts and mudslides add a little more excitement to the mix. Call them the sprinkles on the top of the Mud Pie.

In this winter-that-never-ends, we’ve seen a lot of freeze/thaw cycles. A lot; each one contributing its share of damage to the roads. Until finally—Bob’s yer uncle—the weight of traffic on asphalt resting on air pockets instead of gravel breaks through, leaving a pothole in its wake.

Potholes can be fixed temporarily with some soft asphalt and gravel, but a so-called permanent fix—a mixture of asphalt and aggregate—can only be applied during dry, warm weather. We haven’t seen any of that around in quite a while.

So what can you do? Well, the first thing to do is slow down. Hit some of those potholes at highway speeds and you can do some major damage to your vehicle. And be really careful if you try to avoid a pothole: avoiding potholes, like avoiding wildlife, can leave you in the wrong lane of traffic quicker than you think, not to mention it scares the crap out of the people driving both behind and toward you, who can’t always see the pothole you’re trying to avoid.

You could also attempt doing a sunshine dance. I’ve never heard of anyone doing one effectively, but it wouldn’t hurt to try. And if you succeed, I know a whole region full of people who will bless the day you were born.

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Landon Otis

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Homepage, Headlines, Bonner County, driving, Boundary County, transportation, Governor Butch Otter, highways, roads, state of emergency, potholes, spring break up

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