Stock image of a pothole. Wikimedia

Ithaca, N.Y. — A deep inefficiency in the system is exacerbating Ithaca’s growing pothole problem — and there’s no reason to believe we’ll see any significant improvements anytime soon, according to city officials.

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So, what’s going on?

Potholes are formed when water gets into a crack in the road, freezes, expands, and is then popped out after being hit by a passing vehicle. That means potholes will not form if the roads are in good condition, free of cracks and splits.

Stock image of a pothole. Courtesy of Wikimedia
Stock image of a pothole. Courtesy of Wikimedia

The following is a bit of an oversimplification, but there are — generally speaking — two ways of ensuring the roads are in a condition that prevents potholes from forming:

1 — Preventative road fixes (Short-term, inexpensive)

Using techniques like crack sealing and surface treatments, crews can eliminate cracks in the road and prolong its life for something like 3 to 4 years. This is an easy, low-cost way of preventing potholes from forming.

2 — Major rehabilitation to roads/complete reconstruction (Long-term, expensive)

However, if the road continues to deteriorate, short-term fixes like crack sealing and surface treatments are no longer possible. That necessitates an expensive repair, like milling and overlaying, or an even more expensive solution: Complete reconstruction of the road.

Pursuing the preventative measures is four to five times more efficient than having to conduct a major rehabilitation or complete reconstruction of the road. So why doesn’t Ithaca simply do that?

Here’s the problem: New York state only reimburses cities for the second kind of fix, or repairs that will fully restore the road for 10 years or longer.

That means Ithaca and other upstate cities that rely on state funding for road repairs are pushed to the second, less efficient solution — even when it would be better for both taxpayers and motorists if they pursued the first.

In other words, more money is being spent to fix a problem that could be cheaper to prevent from happening at all.

“When you put in the preventive measures, over time you get a lot more life out of your pavement,” says Mike Thorne, superintendent for Ithaca’s Department of Public Works. “It’s more efficient, economically, and you get more bang for your buck.”

A chart about potholes and road conditions from a Cornell study

But it’s not just that the city is waiting to reconstruct the roads. In some instances, it’s not even paying for the roads that have deteriorated beyond the point where a crack sealing could fix the problem, according to Thorne.

“We can’t keep up with the backlog,” Thorne says. “We have so many roads that are beyond the point of the crack sealing where we have to get into the more expensive fix.”

We sat down with Thorne and Kevin Sutherland, the mayor’s chief of staff, to talk about the city’s problems with potholes.

Tioga Street in Fall Creek on Tuesday. (Mike Blaney/Ithaca Voice)

Below is our explainer on the subject. If we missed your question, please contact us at jstein@ithacavoice.com.

1 – Why are there so many potholes in Ithaca?
2 – Can’t they just fix the potholes instead of repairing the road?
3 – Why is the problem going to get worse?
4 – Exactly how bad is the problem right now?
5 – How much money is Ithaca spending on the problem? 
6 – Why doesn’t the city just spend more on potholes?
7 – Why is it easier for the town to pave its roads than the city?
8 – Where can I report a pothole?

1 — Why are there so many potholes in Ithaca?

The real culprit in forming potholes is what’s known as the “freeze and thaw” cycle. Temperature swings allow the water to get into the road before freezing, turning into ice and then being popped loose or evaporating — thus forming the pothole.

Thorne explains that because of the rough winters, upstate New York gets terrible “freeze and thaw” cycles.

Mike Thorne in a meeting last week.

“The problem is geographic: New York and Pennsylvania are two of the worst states for freeze and thaw,” he says.

2 — Can’t they just fix the potholes instead of repairing the road?

Well, yes — kind of.

City crews can and do fill in potholes that appear on roads by pouring asphalt back in. The problem is that this is really just a temporary solution.

“Water still has the opportunity to get in and freeze and thaw, and the pothole reforms,” Thorne says.

3 — Why is the problem going to get worse?

Thorne said that it’s the goal of the city to finish repairing portions of Clinton Street, Plain Street, Aurora Street, Cayuga Street, Giles Street and Tioga Street by the end of the  year.

That’s still not enough, Thorne said. Despite the repairs, Thorne said the city can’t keep up with the rate of deterioration on the roads. (The city is responsible for taking care of approximately 70 miles of road, Thorne says.)

“And the more they deteriorate, the more potholes we’re going to get,” Thorne said.

The average pavement life for a road is 20 years. That means 1/20th of the city’s road network — or 5 percent — should be repaired every year, according to Thorne.

The current rate of road repair, however, is only 2 percent a year, according to Thorne.

4 — Exactly how bad is the problem right now?

Thorne said the city is hiring an intern this year from Cornell’s local roads program “to do an evaluation of all of our local roads” for the first time in over 10 years.

“We’re trying to get a handle on it,” he said. “It’s hard to say. You look at a road and it might look okay, but it’s starting to show signs that it needs to be repaired.”

Sometimes, Thorne said, it’s hard to tell.

“A lot of the damage is underlying or not so visible,” Thorne said.

5 — How much money is Ithaca spending on the problem?

Thorne called on the city to dramatically increase its spending on road work to fix the pothole problem.

“The city of Ithaca needs to be spending $1.2 million a year just to maintain the roads — that doesn’t include fixing the roads that are already broken,” Thorne says. “This year’s budget is about half of that.”

Thorne did note that this budget included additional money for paving, “but it’s still not enough. And we’d need a higher budget, year over year, to be where we should be.”

6 — Why doesn’t the city just spend more on potholes?

Sutherland said that the city is already increasing its DPW expenditures over past years but that, “Obviously, we can’t just move all of our financial resources to fix our roads.”

He also said: “We have to ask the state to increase CHIPS’ funding.”

Sutherland added that potholes are a crucial quality of life issue.

“That person who can’t avoid the pothole and hits it and has to have their vehicle realigned or they get a flat tire … all of a sudden they’re late for work or could lose their job because of it,” he said.

7 — Why is it easier for the town to pave its roads than the city?

Sutherland said that shorter streets make it difficult for big trucks that drop hot asphalt on the road to cover the city efficiently.

“We can’t use those bigger trucks, so it takes longer to pave the road in a city than it does for those long stretches of road out in the towns,” he says.

The trucks in the city, therefore, have to be smaller and refill more frequently to add asphalt.

“They’re able to get further with the resources they have than we are,” Sutherland says. “Every time you go to fill that truck with hot asphalt — that’s the driver’s time, fuel, and additional miles on the vehicle … The fewer times you have to go to get asphalt, the more money you save.”

8 — Where can I report a pothole?

The city has set up a website that allows residents to report potholes, according to Sutherland.

The website can be found here: https://ny-ithaca.civicplus.com/publiclogin.aspx?dn=www.cityofithaca.org&txtRedirect=RequestTracker.aspx&strAction=Login&newURL=%2fforms.aspx%3ffid%3d62


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Jeff Stein

Jeff Stein is the founder and former editor of the Ithaca Voice.