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Yo-yo cycle of freeze and thaw worsen potholes

No matter where you’re driving in the Monadnock region this month, you’re inevitably dodging potholes. It’s an annual rite of spring, one that has road agents wringing their hands, because there’s little they can do.

“This winter has been particularly difficult for potholes,” said Peterborough Director of Public Works Rodney Bartlett on Tuesday. “They seem more prolific because of the fluctuating temperatures we’ve had. The freeze/thaw cycle really accentuates the problem.”

Bartlett said potholes occur when surface water seeps into cracks in the pavement. In the spring, the ground is still frozen and the water has no place to go. It freezes at night and expands.

“Gravel and stones under the pavement are easily moved,” Bartlett said. “The pavement gets destabilized and you get frost heaves from water freezing and expanding. When cars go over, it collapses the pavement and creates a pothole.”

Bennington Road Agent Gary Russell said Tuesday that he’s only received one call about potholes, but there are definitely more than in previous years because of the extremely cold temperatures. “They’re all over,” he said.

Russell hasn’t been able to get out yet to start repairs because of the weather, but plans to start this week.

Antrim Highway Department employee Jim Plourde said Tuesday that warmups between spells of cold weather create more holes than usual. His department has not started making pothole repairs yet either.

“Nothing is going to work on them in the cold,” Plourde said.

Bartlett said he’s had a crew out almost every day trying to fill potholes, but it’s difficult to keep up.

“We try to clean out holes as best we can and fill with cold patch,” he said. “The shallow holes are more difficult than deep ones, because there’s little area for patch to hold onto. It just doesn’t stay.”

He said plants don’t start making hot patch until sometime in April, when the weather is warmer. In the meantime, Bartlett said many of the patches are temporary until the cold lets up.

“I don’t see much change in the next three to four weeks,” he said.

Bartlett said his crew has filled holes this week on Grove Street and Union Street, roads that are heavily traveled.

“We respond to calls about them,” he said. “We haven’t seen as many issues yet on rural roads.”

Peterborough, like many towns, has posted notices limiting weight of vehicles on many town roads. In Peterborough, 27 roads have been posted, with vehicles of more than 6 tons prohibited. Bartlett said school buses are exempt from the posting.

He said potholes don’t have a significant impact on the Highway Department’s budget.

“At this point, it’s not a major expense. We budget for material every year and it’s not an overtime situation. The real expense comes when we need to repair a section of the roadway where there were a lot. With proper repair, those holes don’t come back next winter.”

The state Department of Transportation is responsible for pothole repair on all state highways. Bartlett emphasized that local towns don’t do pothole work on any sections of state roads, including where they pass through the centers of towns.

John Kallfelz is the district engineer for the N.H. DOT District 4, based in Keene, which covers the southeastern corner of the state, extending as far north as Antrim and Hillsborough and east to Francestown, Wilton and Mason. On Wednesday, Kallfelz said the state has spent more than $200,000 on materials, labor and equipment for winter road maintenance, much of it dealing with potholes.

“They started earlier this year, and coupled with frost heaves, it makes it worse,” Kallfelz said. “You have to dodge the holes, then go over the bumps.”

Kallfelz said his crews generally can get out to fix significant potholes within 24 hours. If a call comes in during a weekend, or a hole is located by one of the department’s night-patrol staffers who monitor the roads, a crew might be assigned right away, but it will depend on the significance of the hole.

“We try to fix them because they can cause real damage to vehicles,” he said.

Anyone noticing a large pothole on a state highway should call the Keene district office at 352-2302. After a call is logged, Kallfelz said, a crew foreman will be notified and the location checked.

Kallfelz said the region’s major highways, Routes 101 and 202, are in pretty good shape because they have been built to modern standards, with wide shoulders, and are better able to handle fluctuations. That’s not the case on some of the other state roads, such as Route 123 in Hancock and/or Route 31 in Greenfield.

Virginia Bingham of Greenfield says the stretch of Route 31 between Bennington and Greenfield is particularly bad.

“If you go over to Antrim to get your coffee, drink it while you’re on Route 202,” said Bingham on Wednesday. “You can’t drink on 31, there are so many dips in the road. We’ve gotten so we’ve memorized where they are.”

One man familiar with the area’s back roads is Chris Langworthy of Swanzey, a Fedex delivery driver who covers 350 to 400 miles a day from Keene through Peterborough and into surrounding areas. Langworthy said Wednesday that he can’t even begin to estimate the number of potholes he sees every day. He doesn’t think the potholes are worse this year, but it might seem that way because numerous storms have made it harder for crews to keep up.

“There’s just so much less time [between storms] for the guys to get caught up with all the potholes,” he said.

Reporters Lindsey Arceci and Amanda Bastoni contributed to this story.

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