Warm weather plus rain equals pothole problems

Potholes along U.S. 6 west of Kendallville are a top concern among KPC News readers. Pictured is a pothole problem area on U.S. 6 near S.R. 9.


KENDALLVILLE — April-like warmth and showers bring bumpy rush hours, or something like that.

Potholes. You get the idea.

It’s that time of year again, when freezing winter temperatures give way to spring-like weather for a day or two. And when that happens, you can expect to see pavement chunking out all over Indiana’s roads.

The recent spurt of 60-degree-plus heat and inches of rain didn’t do local roads any favors, as the small cracks that had frozen, thawed and stretched starting turning into gaping potholes.

“The roads were so bad. It was like, on U.S. 6, it’s like moon craters on there,” Rome City resident Leanna Dawson said after making a perilous trip down to Fort Wayne.

Several readers who responded to a callout on KPC Media Group’s Facebook page about potholes identified U.S. 6 west of Kendallville and U.S. 33 north of Churubusco as some of the most pothole-riddled stretches of road in Noble County. But readers also had complaints about some roads they travel often in DeKalb and Steuben counties, too.

Multiple county roads also took a beating during the brief warm-up this week, which is now keeping local highway department drivers in seek-and-fill mode throughout their townships. City and town street departments have also been out doing some patching to address the sudden epidemic of potholes.

Potholes are a symptom of water infiltration into pavement and usually occur due to back-and-forth freezing and thawing. That freeze-thaw widens cracks until they’re big enough for passing cars to clip the edges and continue breaking up the asphalt with each strike.

The rainy weather definitely did not help the situation, Indiana Department of Transportation Northeast district spokeswoman Nichole Hacha-Thomas said.

“(Feb. 23) was one of our only dry days this week. When it is raining, our crews will not patch potholes unless it’s a safety hazard,” she said. “We will wait until we have a dry day to get out there because it will give us our best chance for that patch staying.”

Crews are getting out and patching with a material called “cold patch,” which is there to fill the hole temporarily. Highway workers can’t make a permanent fix until spring when the asphalt plants in Indiana reopen for road construction season. Once that happens, road crews can go back and fill holes with a hot asphalt, which creates a better, smoother patch, Hacha-Thomas said.

“The earlier we get warmer weather, the earlier the hot mix asphalt plants open and the earlier we get out there to fix those potholes,” she said.

Although potholes on the state highways might be the most noticeable — they’re the most highly traveled routes, after all — the pavement problems have struck county roads too.

Noble County Highway Department Engineer Zack Smith said his crews are also on active pothole patrol because the weather opened up a lot of gashes.

“Typically you see this every season. Sometimes it’s in February, sometimes it’s later in April. When you have a warm-up like this, or a lot of freeze-thaw, you see a lot of the movement in the roads,” Smith said. “That is kind of what we see during the season, we actively have crews out in each of the townships looking for problems.”

The situation in LaGrange County is basically the same story — potholes are bad now and the bad weather is making it worse, highway department superintendent Randy VanWagner said.

Potholes tend to be worse on the west side of LaGrange County because of the heavy horse traffic. The metal horse shoes break the pavement and allow water to get in, and the warm-cold-warm weather causes potholes to blossom.

Dirt roads are also especially susceptible to potholing and need to be graded to be smoothed out. Unfortunately, the rain has been preventing crews from getting the grader out, VanWagner said.

Potholing is going to be worse on roads that are already in need of more rigorous maintenance, and that’s because water is getting into pavement that’s already cracked or broken, Smith said. New roads or roads that have recently been repaved are far less likely to develop holes.

That’s bad news for now, but good news for this summer because those roads are typically next up on the county’s summer construction schedule. The highway department travels all of Noble County’s approximately 800 miles of county roads and rates them in April, then develops its maintenance program based on those ratings.

So a road that gets badly scarred by potholes over winter has a chance of moving up the priority list for an overlay or reconstruction, Smith said.

And for drivers who are bouncing around U.S. 6 lately, there’s good news there too. INDOT’s plan is to mill and repave the entire stretch of highway between S.R. 3 in Kendallville and S.R. 5 in Ligonier this summer.

The state will be taking bids for that project in spring, with the work scheduled for summer, Hacha-Thomas said. That probably means road crews will only be making temporary patches to U.S. 6 this spring, so it’ll probably stay bumpier than usual. But then it will get a full fresh coat of pavement and should be smooth driving, she said.

A mill-and-overlay typically adds five to seven years of life to a road, so U.S. 6 should potentially remain in good shape into the early- to mid-2020’s.

If the weather oscillates between hot and cold through the rest of February and March, drivers can expect to see a lot more potholes. But if it stays above freezing from here on out, it might be the worst of the road damage for the season.

That’s Hoosier weather for you.

“We live in Indiana. It is absolutely a byproduct of the place we live,” Hacha-Thomas said.

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