Maura In The News

Can we climb out of pothole purgatory?
The holes from hell, even during their off-season, threaten to swallow the hapless

By John McElhenny, Globe Correspondent, 11/9/2003

Every spring they appear, those pavement craters that threaten to swallow small cars and give cyclists a heady hardtop hangover. And every spring, patient public-works types explain how moisture seeps beneath the roadways, expanding as it freezes and then contracting as it thaws, leaving the road surface rife with the chasms we call potholes.

So how to explain potholes in November?

Exactly which frosty phenomenon has gouged Cambridge Street like a crater-filled battlefield, when the city hasn't seen an accumulation of snow in half a year? How can ice be to blame for the holes that pock Route 99 beneath Sullivan Square, or the cavities that mar Charles River bridges from the Museum of Science to Arsenal Street?

''Normally, you think of it as a winter thing," said Alison Haight, 27, who dodges potholes every day on her Somerville-to-South Boston bike commute. ''But potholes are at all times of the year in Boston."

We've all seen them, those crevice-filled sidewalks and ripped-up roadways that make passage perilous for pedestrians, runners, bicyclists, and motorists alike.

Pin the blame, if you like, on the wide swings in New England weather that give road surfaces an annual beating. Or the construction boom, led by the Big Dig, that has sent heavy trucks rumbling across city streets and diverted money from road and bridge repairs. Or blame the tired, old streets in our nearly 400-year-old city. Don't forget a much newer phenomenon: The telecommunications age that has sent construction crews digging up streets to bury wires and pipes to satisfy our insatiable demand for computers, phones, and cable televisions.

Whatever the cause, Eric Grasso knows that when he drives Route 99 under Sullivan Square, he and other drivers are forced to veer to avoid 2-foot-wide potholes. Grasso said his fiancee, who drives the route from Malden to Boston every day, recently had to pay $500 to fix her new car after a pothole stripped the bearings in one of her tires.

''It looks like someone dropped a bomb down there," said Grasso, who works for a recruiting firm and has lived here his entire life. ''I've been living here 28 years and I never remember it being a smooth ride."

Haight said the worst stretch of her bike commute is Cambridge Street between Massachusetts General Hospital and Government Center. One day recently, she narrowly missed a foot-wide, 10-inch-deep pothole.

''You're just weaving all over the place so you don't kill yourself," she said, adding that some of her friends drive to work instead of biking because they fear the rough roads as well as the traffic.

Joseph F. Casazza, commissioner of the city's Public Works Department, says most of what people think of as ''potholes" are caused by utilities updating and maintaining underground lines -- necessary steps so long as people want to have cable television, telephones, and gas and electricity in their homes. The warmer months of the year when the ground is soft is the best time for this work.

''When someone drives over something and it goes bump, everyone in the world cries 'pothole,' " said Casazza. He said a city inspection force will probably be created by the spring to make sure utilities properly fill holes and trenches on city streets.

At-Large City Councilor Maura Hennigan experienced the city's potholes firsthand in May, when she broke her ankle stepping into a pothole on Blue Hill Avenue while marching in a parade.

Hennigan launched a new website, www.boston.potholeweb.com, on Oct. 20 that allows people to report potholes. The reports are forwarded to the city's Public Works Department for repair. By the end of its first week of operation, 21 potholes had been reported to the website.

''The City of Boston needs to do a better job of monitoring and holding accountable those who dig in our streets," Hennigan said in announcing the website.

A spokesman for Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino said people are already able to report potholes to the city's website, www.cityofboston.gov, and through the mayor's 24-hour hotline.

''We encourage all members of the public and City Council to report all defects and any other complaints about city life," said the spokesman, Seth Gitell. ''They're free to do that."

Since January, 1,087 potholes have been reported to the city, and 748 of them have been repaired, Gitell said. The city hopes to spend $8 million to fix potholes over the next nine months.

Complaints about potholes typically surge during the winter and spring thaws, and then drop off during the summer and fall. Jon Carlisle, a spokesman for the state's Executive Office of Transportation and Construction, said 1,200 pothole complaints were called in between January and April 2003. The number of complaints for state roads fell to 126 in May, 105 in June and 17 in July. Nineteen complaints were made in September and 16 in October through Oct. 27, Carlisle said.

In Boston, the mayor's office sets up a ''Pothole Hotline" when weather conditions warrant, usually in January or February, Casazza said. Even when the hotline is not in service, Casazza said the city's highway maintenance staff, which includes ''a couple hundred" people, works year-round to repair city roads.

That task has been made more difficult in recent years, Casazza said, because the Big Dig diverted money from city road and bridge projects. The ongoing North Washington Street bridge upgrade and the recently completed Summer Street Bridge upgrade were among the projects delayed by the Big Dig, he said.

Andrew M. Fischer rides his bike to work near Boston Common every day from his home in Brookline. Fischer says a 500-yard stretch of Beacon Street from Kenmore Square to St. Mary's Street is a daily peril, with patches of pavement cobbled unevenly together.

''I've been waiting all summer for them to repave it," said Fischer, 53, an attorney. ''It's pretty awful."

Runners dread uneven streets and sidewalks as much as bicyclists, it seems. Hillary Holloway says she likes to run along the Esplanade near BU in the evenings, but with the sun now setting earlier she says she's afraid to do so, though her fear has nothing to do with muggers or pickpockets.

''I am sometimes too scared to go out for a run after work -- scared of tripping on those cracks," said Holloway, 34, an engineer. ''I'm more worried about tripping and falling because of irregularities in the pavement than I am of anything else."

A knee injury a few years ago left her particularly concerned about falling, she said.

Alicia Donnelly drives from Mission Hill to the Back Bay every day and has her own stretch of pothole purgatory on Hemenway Street in the Fenway near Forsyth Street. Donnelly, 33, a documentation specialist at Berklee College of Music, says the stretch is a bumpy way to start her day.

''It's like driving on the surface of the moon there," she said.

The City of Boston's pothole hotline is operational when conditions warrant, usually in January and February. The number is 617-635-3050. The mayor's 24-hour hotline is 617-635-4500. The Massachusetts Highway Department's pothole hotline is 800-227-0608.

© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.

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