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To Combat Potholes, Cities Turn to Technology

They are a torment for motorists and a costly headache for transportation departments. Every winter and spring, potholes plague city streets and rural roads, causing drivers to curse and public works officials to shudder.

That’s why some local governments are turning to data and technology to find and fix potholes. Some are even trying to predict where they’ll open up.

In a growing number of cities, including Omaha, Nebraska; Hartford, Connecticut; and San Diego, residents can download an app for reporting potholes. In Houston, residents can check out the Pothole Tracker app or log on to a website and see graphics and charts showing the city’s progress in fixing them.

And emerging technologies and data analytics are taking the fight against potholes to a new level. In Syracuse, New York, officials are using data that will track and visualize trends around potholes. And a Kansas City, Missouri, pilot project is using algorithms to try to predict where potholes will show up.

Even companies such as Google and Microsoft have created apps that people can use in their cars that try to detect potholes and alert drivers about damaged roads.

“Potholes are a huge problem. The federal government may screw around and not pass a budget and guys will bitch about it on CNN,” said Bob Bennett, Kansas City’s chief innovation officer. “But if we fail to fill the potholes or pick up the trash, we’re going to hear about it. Potholes are one of those things people kvetch about.”

No one knows how many potholes are out there, but everyone agrees there are lots of them, especially in areas that have repeated temperature swings below and above the freezing point.

American drivers pay an estimated $3 billion a year to repair damage caused by potholes, according to AAA. Over a five-year period, 16 million drivers reported their vehicles were damaged by potholes, from tire punctures and bent wheels to suspension damage.

Repair bills for motorists can range from under $250 to more than $1,000, said Michael Calkins, AAA’s manager of technical services.

And vehicle damage isn’t the only threat motorists face.

“There’s a potential to lose control of the car,” Calkins said. “If it’s a big enough pothole and you’re going fast enough, you could have the steering wheel jerked out of your hands and end up hitting another car.”

Potholes Grow

Potholes form when moisture collects in small holes and cracks in an asphalt road surface and seeps into its lower layers.

As temperatures fluctuate, the moisture freezes and thaws, expanding and contracting, which weakens the roadway and cracks the pavement. With the weight of cars and trucks, the road surface becomes increasingly damaged and eventually breaks apart, resulting in a pothole.

“The bigger potholes get, the faster they grow,” Calkins said. “If you can catch it while it’s small the repair is easier and the potential for it to grow and the risk of damage to vehicles is reduced.”

Although potholes sometimes form on major highways, most appear on city streets and rural roads, which are built to less stringent standards with thinner surfaces.