In the days following the much-hyped bomb cyclone, the number of new potholes that materialized in Denver made many streets look like the surface of the moon, and ten days later, plenty of drivers cruising along without a care in the world are regularly getting ugly jolts when they least expect it. Hot coffee is a lot less enjoyable when it's splashing against your face.
What's being done to deal with this problem? How can you get that unfriendly neighborhood pothole filled? And if your ride is damaged after you unwittingly slam it into such a crater, will the city pay for repairs?
You've got questions, and we've got answers courtesy of Nancy Kuhn, spokeswoman for the Denver Department of Public Works, the source of our recent post revealing everything you need to know about snow plowing in the Mile High. And this time, Kuhn brought in a ringer: Pat Kennedy, engineering supervisor for the city's street maintenance unit.
Continue to become a pothole-fighting expert. The replies to our inquiries are from Kuhn unless otherwise noted.
Westword: How many potholes have been filled in Denver so far this year? And how many are filled in the average year?
Nancy Kuhn: We do continual tracking, and as of March 20, we were at 10,090. In 2018 total, we filled 63,652. Every year, we fill between 60,000 and 100,000 potholes. Some years, I think we've been over 100,000, or just around 100,000, but as long as I've been part of this program, we've been in the 60,000-100,000 range.
How much does Denver spend filling potholes each year?
We expend approximately $2 million annually on pothole repair.
How many people does the City of Denver task with filling potholes?
We have as many as eight crews filling potholes each day during the week, weather permitting. These are our street-maintenance employees, the same group of folks who plow snow and do other things on Denver streets. On snowy days or rainy days, you'll see less pothole filling because it's not weather permitting. It's just not effective to be out patching in a rainstorm or a snowstorm. And when it's snowing, these same folks would be on snow duty.
We have a couple of different pieces of equipment we use to fill potholes. Some folks might see what we call a conventional patch truck working on the street. That's a two-person operation, where they park the truck, fill the hole with material and work to cover that pothole. We also have a couple of one-man road patchers: one man per truck. They work during the weekdays, but if we have a situation where we see we're going to have a lot of potholes, it's not unusual to have trucks out on the weekends, too.
How do you find out about potholes?
We ask people to call 311 and report potholes to us. They can also do it through Pocketgov, and we always encourage people to report them to us. But only about 10 percent of the ones we fill are the ones reported to us. About 90 percent are done on proactive patrol. In the morning, our crews get a list of potholes that were reported. They're the first priority, and they fill those first. Then they go out on proactive patrols looking for potholes and filling them as they see them.
How long does it take to get a pothole filled after one is reported?
If we get a report of a pothole, we'll fix it within three business days, weather permitting, and most are filled within two days.
Are there times when there are lots of potholes and it takes longer than three days to fill them?
We don't have a backlog on those that are reported in, and if we're having a bad season, we will work overtime and get out there on the weekends and do proactive patrols.
Pat Kennedy: The budget isn't an issue. It's like when we talk about snow: If we run out of money in November, we're not going to quit patching. This is a service we're providing the citizens of Denver. It's not going to get cut off due to funding.
What material do you use to fill potholes?
We use asphalt all year round, but when we're headed into warmer weather, we use what we call a hot mix, and in the winter months, we use what's called a cold mix. But while cold mix does the job, it's not our best patch. Our best patch is hot mix, which we can use in the spring, summer and fall months, because it gives the best bond.
Kennedy: There may be some availability of hot mix in the wintertime, but it's sketchy at best, because most asphalt plants shut down then. During the winter, the easiest way is to use a cold mix, where we don't have temperature restrictions. It can either be made of virgin material or recycled material, but it's an asphalt product, and the oils don't solidify at a colder temperature. They stay more flexible in a low temperature setting.
Hot mix is heated to about 250 to 300 degrees. The crews use brooms and shovels and whatever they can to get loose moisture out of the pothole. You're never going to get it completely dry, but you try. And then we apply tack, a mix of asphalt, oil and water. We kind of paint the hole with that, and any residual water is going to mix with the emulsion.
Do snow plows cause some of the potholes, even though drivers are instructed not to let their blades touch the street surface?
I wouldn't say the snow plows cause them. Potholes are created by repeated freeze-thaw cycles, and in the winters when we have a lot of those, we have a lot of potholes.
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What parts of the street are the most likely to have potholes?
Kennedy: The edge of the road. That's where the water trickles. It comes off the crown of the road and goes to the edge, where you have more water collecting. And the edge of the road is also where most of the trucks and buses are running, so you get more potholes from the heavier impact. And they tend to be more on the arterial roads, because you have more truck and bus traffic and higher speeds. That's going to accelerate the deterioration, along with the conditions.
Do you only fill big potholes?
Kennedy: Our crews fill whatever potholes we find. We have two or three different kinds of equipment that are very good at filling a lot of small holes in a rapid fashion. The bigger ones take a little more effort, so we try to get to the holes before they get big. On the little ones, your tire may go over the top of them. But it can be more about the shape than the size. The more gradual potholes aren't going to affect cars, but ones with more of a deep, vertical edge are the ones that can really bend a rim.
Will the city pay for damage to your car from a pothole?
The way it works is if someone believes a pothole has damaged their vehicle, they can file a claim with the city. Public works isn't involved in that process, but the city attorney does that on its file-a-claim page. When you go to the page, it gives you instructions on how to file the claim. The first thing you do is write and file a notice of claim, which is basically a letter where you give your name, address and a concise statement of what happened, with the date, time, place and copies of bills that show the extent of the damages claimed to be suffered. It doesn't say anything about photos, but I don't see how it could hurt to have them, too. Then the city attorney's office looks into it.
Has this been a bad season for potholes?
Not really. The last couple of winters have been milder winters by Denver's average standards. The pothole season hasn't been as severe as some other years. We're kind of on the low end of our average. But there are still a lot of them.