ITHACA, N.Y. — Potholes are unavoidable in Ithaca. The seasonal cycles of rain and snow, freezes and thaws relentlessly chip away at the integrity of pavement, causing roadways to swell, shrink and eventually cave in. Swerve as they might, drivers and cyclists can’t help but hit bumps in the road. The roughly 60 complaints submitted through the city’s pothole request portal so far this year suggest some residents are fed up with the problem.

“The entire stretch of Spencer Street starting at traffic circle off old Old Elmira road straight to Cayuga Street is horrendous!!!” one driver wrote on April 2.

“There is a large pothole on Hudson St. at the intersection with Prospect. When buses travel over it it makes a loud thumping noise that literally shakes my house. It is alarming and disturbing and cannot be good for the vehicles that travel over it. Could you please repair this asap? Thank you,” a resident wrote in February.

A total of 65 pothole complaints were submitted between Jan. 1, 2019 and June 15, 2019, and obtained via a Freedom of Information request. A handful of the complaints refer to potholes outside the City of Ithaca, and in some cases, multiple complaints refer to a single pothole or block. Some people submitted multiple requests, too.

While the complaints are not comprehensive, taken together they hint at which stretches of road have frustrated residents the most. Spencer Road topped the list, with a total of eight complaints submitted through the online portal since January. One resident estimated there are at least 20 potholes on Spencer between the Elmira Road traffic circle and Stone Quarry Road, while another described the stretch as “an almost continuous rut of potholes.”

Several people who submitted pothole complaints blamed street conditions for flat tires or rim damage. “I blew out a tire on the pothole in front of 727 university ave doing 20 mph. The tire in question cost me $401 to replace,” one person wrote.

Some requests included photos of potholes, like this one at 516 Spencer Road. (Obtained via FOIL request)

In addition to concerns about vehicle damage, residents expressed concern about traffic safety, describing areas where drivers and cyclists have to swerve or brake suddenly to avoid hitting a deep hole. One person said that due to a divot in the middle of the street, “cars swerve into the other lane to avoid the divot which is dangerous with oncoming cars coming around a blind turn.” Referring to University Avenue, a person wrote, “deep large pothole in S-bound downhill lane could be catastrophic for a cyclist to hit.”

Dan Cogan, the city’s chief of staff, said the pothole request portal helps steer Department of Public Works crews toward the city’s most urgent problems so they can complete short-term repairs.

“Our crews fill potholes on Fridays, and they use a hot mix when it’s available, and otherwise they use a cold mix that unfortunately doesn’t last as long. But no matter what, simply filling a pothole is a short term fix,” he said.

When potholes are patched with “hot mix,” the area around the hole is excavated and hot asphalt is used to fill the hole, created a relatively durable seal that prevents additional damage. Patching with “cold mix,” by contrast, means simply pouring pre-mixed asphalt into a pothole, a method that does not seal out liquid and is therefore short-lived.

A resident submitted this photo of a pothole at 517 Hudson St. (Obtained via FOIL request)

Some residents who submitted pothole requests commented on the temporary nature of repairs.

“The large pothole at the intersection of Hudson and Prospect has gotten worse. I saw a crew repairing it the other week after I sent a comment (thank you!) but the material they filled it with has washed away and it seems to be worse than before,” one person wrote.

Lasting solutions to potholes require more extensive work, ranging from laying a fresh coat of asphalt on top of an existing road surface to doing a full rebuild, with newly packed gravel and new asphalt. Repairs on Stewart Avenue earlier this spring consisted of an overlay, layering fresh asphalt over the previously pothole-ridden road surface. Recently completed repairs on the 200 block of Cayuga Street, meanwhile, were a full re-build, complete with upgraded underground utilities, newly packed gravel, new curbs and fresh asphalt.

These larger projects, Cogan said, are prioritized based on the city’s assessment of the state of disrepair, the traffic load and the state of water and sewer lines underneath the road. “It’s part art, part science,” he said. “As far as more extensive repairs,” he said, the resident pothole portal “doesn’t really factor in.”

A photo submitted of 702 Hancock St. (Obtained via FOIL request)

Cogan said there is no definitive list of which streets DPW will work on this summer, but mentioned a few stretches that will get attention. Now that work on Cayuga Street has concluded, crews will mill and pave Auburn Street in the Northside neighborhood and Lake Avenue in Fall Creek before finishing paving Willow Avenue, he said.

While no complaints were submitted about Auburn, Lake or Willow during 2019, Auburn and Willow were the subject of several requests for repairs in recent years, with some specifically asking for long-lasting repairs in place of temporary patches. As one descriptive resident wrote, “This morning at 6:00 under cover of darkness three city workers pulled up to the many, many potholes in the middle of the 300 block of Willow Avenue, hastily shoveled some asphalt at a few of them, whacked it once or twice with the back of their shovels, and drove off– all in about 4 minutes… Willow is a terrible mess and these stealth visits with a little asphalt flung carelessly at the problem does nothing–nothing–to correct it.”

The City of Ithaca’s 2019 budget included an allocation of about $450,000 to the Department of Public Works to hire a seven-person streets and facilities crew. Mayor Svante Myrick said adding a full crew would have a more significant impact on the volume of projects the department could tackle than adding workers individually each year would.

The hiring process began in March and is still underway. According to Cogan, “It will likely be at least a year until the new crew is firing on all cylinders and the public is able to see a noticeable increase in road work.”

Residents can submit their pothole requests on the city’s website.

Featured image: Resident submitted photo of pothole at 235 Cliff St. (Obtained via FOIL request)

Devon Magliozzi

Devon Magliozzi is a reporter for the Ithaca Voice. Questions? Story tips? Contact her at dmagliozzi@ithacavoice.com or 607-391-0328.