COVID-19 Stay-at-Home Order Worsens Denver Pothole Problem?

Colorado's stay-at-home order over COVID-19, set to expire on April 26, has had innumerable unintended consequences. Among the most surprising: It appears to have made the pothole problem in Denver worse, just as more cars are expected to start hitting the roads again.

Indeed, data indicates that in 2019, the city had filled over 1,000 more potholes by this point in April than it has so far in 2020.

Potholes tend to pop up on Denver streets every year around this time. And based on recent drives through various parts of the Mile High City, potholes seem to be more problematic than ever, with clusters of undercarriage-wrecking pavement breaks along major commuting routes and on neighborhood streets alike.

That's not because policies have been altered by the stay-at-home order, though. "We’ve made no changes in our approach to pothole repairs," says Nancy Kuhn, a spokesperson for the Denver Department of Transportation & Infrastructure, the agency formally known as Public Works that's tasked with keeping up with potholes. "Filling them remains a priority."

The same is true for the Colorado Department of Transportation, whose Tamara Rollison tells us that "CDOT crews are out repairing potholes on state maintained roads." She adds that less traffic doesn't equate to fewer potholes, since the cavities "develop as a result of a freeze/thaw cycle — extreme cold temps followed by warm weather, which we are experiencing and is typical for this time of year. The freeze/thaw cycle causes the pavement to weaken and potholes to develop."

In Denver, city crews are on the lookout for potholes. But they're also heavily dependent on reports from the public about ones that have opened up — and the lower number of drivers has had an effect. "Staff believes that, yes, we have had fewer potholes reported to us by people, given the stay-at-home order," Kuhn reveals.

This scenario likely explains the following data from Transportation & Infrastructure, which shows a big decrease in pothole-filling year over year.
2020, through 4/20 — 3,781 filled

2019, through 4/20 —  4,970 filled
This disparity would probably be even greater had Denver not stepped up its proactive pothole repair, which has increased from 588 through April 20 in 2019 to 694 during the same span of 2020. "It is this time of year, with the arrival of warmer weather and the opening of our asphalt plant, that our proactive pothole patrols pick up," Kuhn notes. "The vast majority of potholes we fill each year are filled on proactive patrol. ... Historically, the number of potholes we fill each year has ranged between 60,000 to 100,000, and has been typically dependent upon the kind of winter and number of freeze/thaw cycles we experience."

Do these numbers mean that Denver is fated to suffer the worst pothole season in recent memory? Not necessarily, Kuhn maintains: "We’re hoping that, over time, fewer pothole repairs are needed in Denver. We paved a record 519 lane miles of roadway last year with additional funding from the voter-approved Elevate Denver Bond program and are aiming for that target this year. As of today, we remain within a five-year window to pave 40 percent of the city by 2023, which will add to the stability and integrity of our roadways."

Still, those of you heading to work for the first time in weeks on April 27 would be well advised to keep an eye out for potholes, lest your car fall into one and require repairs that send you back to stay at home.
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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts