It's a peculiar pothole season
March 31, 2023
If you scroll Facebook or other social media, you've seen how spring roads in Minnesota have taken on a new life in memes. Many of the humorous images feature the character Jack from the blockbuster film "Titanic" shown submerged in a pothole.
"It's one of the worst years I've seen for potholes," said Ross Biebl, assistant public works director for the city of Cloquet.
"The roads are as bad or worse than they are in a normal year at this time," said Rick Norrgard, assistant transportation engineer for Carlton County. "It's been exaggerated because of the type of winter and amount of snow."
To better understand why the roads are pocked with more potholes than most people can recall, the newspaper talked with transportation officials from the state, county and city of Cloquet.
The short answer: it's been an unusually wet and sometimes warm winter, with more freeze-thaw action than usual.
"Freeze-thaw is really what chews up the roads," said Caleb Peterson, Cloquet's director of public works. "We haven't had consistently freezing temperatures."
Robert Dahl, maintenance superintendent for Carlton County, also noted a series of wet weather events: freezing drizzle throughout January, followed by multiple days of freezing fog, then a ¾-inch rain event in February.
"It all started with the very first snow," Dahl said of the infamous "Blue Blizzard" of Dec. 13-16. "It was heavy, wet snow with a lot of moisture in that storm."
Water treats road surfaces about as kindly as it did the Wicked Witch of the West. But it doesn't melt them. Instead, it sucks portions of the surfaces down into the subsoils, creating potholes and gouges while becoming a nightmare for drivers and their vehicles' tires, rims and suspension systems.
"Water is going to seep into the roadbed and freeze," said Margie Nelson, spokesperson for the Minnesota Department of Transportation. "It will expand when it melts and create a gap where the frozen water was, and the road will collapse."
At this time of year, asphalt plants aren't in operation, and won't be until later, when seasonal weight limits and road restrictions return to normal after the spring melt. So instead of filling potholes with a hot mix that better adheres to roadways, maintenance crews use cold mix. The cold mix is a temporary solution, one prone to failure.
"If you plow after you put it down, the plows will pull those up," Biebl said. "The freeze-thaw cycle can pop the cold mix out overnight, too."
Still, maintenance crews from all jurisdictions are doing as much pothole-filling as possible. And oftentimes, this winter and spring, it hasn't been possible. Because, as we all know, the snow has seemed at times to be a continuous, daily condition.
"Catching up with potholes is secondary," MnDOT's Nelson said. "We know it's bad and it's not getting neglected, but first priority is to clear snow."
"Our crew has been out as time allows between snow events," said public works' Peterson, who addressed a deeper matter when it comes to roadways.
"It's really a symptom, quite honestly, of underinvestment," he said. "It's decades and decades of underfunding, and not something that gets fixed overnight."
Peterson explained that roadways don't gradually deteriorate over a number of years. When seemingly sound surfaces start to go bad, it's sudden.
"Deterioration of pavement is not a straight line," he said. "There's a steep dropoff. They go downhill in a hurry."
Getting to streets with repairs and resurfacing at the right time in their lifespan makes a big difference. But that requires money at the correct time.
Unfortunately in Cloquet, there are no planned street resurfacings within the city for 2023. The next roadway to get project attention comes in 2024, with a resurfacing project targeted for Armory Road, from the Cloquet Armory to White Pine Trail. Another project with the county in 2024, on 22nd Street, will find the city conducting underground utility replacement while the county tends to roadway reconstruction.
"There's just no funding," Peterson said. "We're working toward a couple big projects in 2024. This year we'll have some smaller utility-type projects ... with everything done by the maintenance crew."
A local option sales tax has been fully allocated, and Peterson said he hoped the Minnesota Legislature would expand Local Government Aid as part of the state's budget surplus.
"We're not alone," Peterson said. "Every agency across the nation is in the same boat."
So, while local jurisdictions struggle to keep up with the micro issue of potholes, the macro issue plays a role. Municipalities struggle to resurface or reconstruct roads in time.
Fortunately, there's another annual phenomenon at play. Come summer, the freezing, thawing and heaving will be over. The undulations in the roads will straighten out. The hot pack will be applied and the worst of spring will be forgotten.
"As things dry out and we get into the later part of June, everybody forgets about it," Peterson said. "The holes are filled and won't be back until next spring."
The county officials addressed dirt roads, too. A 2-inch snowfall late this month wasn't even plowed off the county's dirt roads, some of which are 6 inches of soupy mess during sunlight hours.
"They're not good right now," Dahl said. "We weren't able to plow gravel roads; they were so soft. We let that 2 inches of snow stay there and melt. It would have been counterproductive to plow snow along with a ½-inch of gravel."
When the frost comes out of the ground, and the expansion of soils goes back to a dry, summer condition, the county officials agreed motorists won't notice the road conditions as much.
"Be patient," Norrgard said. "We're getting to the potholes. We understand the frustration. But it's going to take some time."
Pine Knot editor Jana Peterson contributed to this report.