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Hard Winter’s Toll: Pipes and Potholes

Axles break and waterlines burst from cold and snow

February 13, 2014
The Intelligencer / Wheeling News-Register

CHICAGO (AP) - This merciless winter is taking a heavy toll on the nation's pipes and pavement, breaking hundreds of water mains that turn streets into frozen rivers and opening potholes so big they snap tire rims and wheel axles like Popsicle sticks.

From Iowa to New York and Michigan to Georgia, the relentless cycle of snow and bitter cold is testing the strength of the steel-and-cement skeletons on which our communities are built, the patience of the people who live there and the stamina of crews whose job is to keep the roads safe and the taps running.

Even after the weather eases, state and local governments will be left with steep repair bills that could affect their budgets for months to come.

Article Photos

AP Photo - A work crew clears ice off the road as water bubbles up from a broken water main that flooded several blocks in Detroit.

In scores of cities, once-smooth roadways have been transformed into obstacle courses by gaping potholes that can seriously damage passing vehicles but are too large to avoid.

New York City crews filled 69,000 potholes in the first five weeks of the year - nearly twice as many as the same period in 2013. In Iowa, a Des Moines official said the city has never endured so many broken water mains in the 100-year history of its water utility.

Michigan's top transportation official warned that the icy conditions would create more potholes than "we've probably ever seen in our lifetime."

Busted water mains have created the most dramatic scenes - and the greatest challenge for repair crews, who must dig into rock-hard ground to reach pipes that are up to a century old and cannot withstand the pressure created by earth that shifts as it freezes.

The western Illinois city of Moline has had 61 water main breaks so far. That's 10 more than anyone there can remember and a staggering number given that the community has just 240 miles of water lines.

The repairs are made all the more difficult by dangerous subzero temperatures that freeze soil down to a depth of 3 or 4 feet.

Because the ground is so rigid, leaking water often does not escape directly above the broken pipe, but travels hundreds of feet before finding a soft spot or an opening, occasionally shooting into the air like a geyser, said Greg Swanson, general manager of Moline's utilities.

Not only that, but the ground is so hard that the same digging machines that can normally expose a pipe in less than an hour now have to scrape and claw for 11 hours or more.

Far less dramatic but especially aggravating are all the potholes, which form after water seeps into cracks in the pavement, turns to ice and expands.

Chicago's potholes are multiplying by the thousands. In the first six weeks of this year, the transportation department said crews - working around the clock - have dumped some 2,000 tons of patching material into more than 125,000 potholes. The city is almost certain to fill more than the 625,000 potholes patched last year.

The rapid repairs may actually make conditions worse.

Munir Nazzal, an assistant professor of civil engineering at Ohio University, led a study that found patching asphalt only stays in place for a matter of weeks, days or even hours before traffic scatters it. And snowplow blades can actually fill potholes with snow, where it melts, seeps into the road surface and freezes. "They're not solving the problem at all," Nazzal said.

 
 

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