Are potholes inevitable, or can we prevent winter misery?

If you've had enough of pothole dodging this winter, brace yourself: Spring will usher in a pothole beatdown of record proportions, officials predict.

“We anticipate higher than average numbers of pothole repairs through the spring months due mainly to the very cold temperatures, the recent hard freeze, and freeze/thaw action throughout this winter,” Jae Miller of IDOT said.

The state's already spent $1.5 million more on pothole patching this season compared to 2013.

But are pockmarked roads inevitable in the region or can we do better?

The answer doesn't lie in a revolutionary new cement or asphalt mix — yet, experts say. Instead, it comes down to a few simple things: quality materials, experienced builders, plus regular road maintenance and reconstruction.

“A lot of things cause potholes, but at the core they're caused because we don't do enough road maintenance. We push our roads too far and too hard,” said engineer Don Hillebrand, head of Argonne National Laboratory's Transportation Research Center.

Potholes form when water seeps into cracks in asphalt or cement, then freezes and expands to cause more damage. Freeze and thaw cycles compound the trouble.

The fact the Chicago region is a truck hub doesn't help. Heavy trucks can grind a minute pothole into a crater, Hillebrand said.

Avoiding potholes starts with getting it right the first time, said Mohsen Issa, a University of Illinois at Chicago structural and materials engineering professor.

Laying a strong foundation of aggregate is key, he said, as is ensuring the correct levels of air bubbles in the concrete to absorb freezing water. “If we don't have that, we're in trouble,” Issa said. “It's not always easy to achieve because in concrete mixes there are so many variables.”

Hillebrand, a former auto executive with Chrysler and Mercedes-Benz, spent time in Germany, where “they view roads as a serious thing and spend much more on road maintenance than we do and expect them to last longer,” he said. Deeper foundations and thicker concrete help preserve German roads, he noted.

Once roads are built, regular inspections and preventive maintenance will guard against potholes, Issa said.

The cash-poor Illinois Department of Transportation has already spent $8.4 million so far this season on pothole patching compared to $6.9 million in 2013 and $7.5 million in 2012. And more freeze and thaw cycles are expected to produce a bumper crop of potholes March through May.

In comparison, the Illinois tollway “generally is doing less pothole patching than in previous years because there is less aging pavement in our system that needs to be repaired, thanks largely to the widespread reconstruction work being done across the system,” spokesman Dan Rozek said in an email. Which brings us to the ultimate pothole paradox facing the region. Old roads generate more potholes — but where's the money to pay for new roads? Unlike the tollway, which raised rates in 2012, the state and local governments have shrinking revenues for infrastructure.

“The fact is most of these roads are old and have lived beyond their service and people don't want to pay increased taxes to get into massive replacements on these things,” said Leland Smithson, director of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials' snow and ice program.

Hillebrand called it unfortunate that states such as Florida receive federal funds to rebuild roads wiped out by hurricanes, while Illinois' pothole emergency isn't viewed as worthy of aid.

“It's a low-level disaster,” he said. “Because no one recognizes it as a big thing, we have to pay money no one else does.”

He also noted some researchers are studying using “clever materials” to build better road surfaces, but there aren't a lot of advances to date.

In Illinois, with its history of the construction industry contributing to politicians, there's suspicion that some roads are built on the cheap to perpetuate repairs that enrich the connected few.

Former Sen. Susan Garrett acknowledged that cynicism is not unfounded. But moving forward, she recommends the state and region convene a “pothole summit,” to bring together the brightest minds and best ideas to combat the problem and consider economies of scale.

“A summit could identify the gold standard (for dealing with potholes),” said Garrett, board chairman of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform. “Municipalities could band together to buy more expensive materials less expensively and come up with ways in which to serve their communities better and fix the potholes.”

Chicago adding road crew workers to fill potholes

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  Lombard public works employees fill potholes along Grace Street. Mark Black/
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