Why Does NYC Have Such a Pothole Problem?

The arrival of spring brings a number of things—robins, baseball, short sleeves. Also: potholes. And in New York this year, after a winter of storms, potholes are at record levels.

(David Shankbone)

(David Shankbone)

According to Lucius Riccio, Professor of Engineering and Applied Science at Columbia University and a former Department of Transport Commissioner, New York City may experience a whopping 250,000 to 300,000 potholes by the end of spring 2016—the highest number of potholes since the 1970s. In the aftermath of the January 2016 blizzard, a large number of potholes were created across the city, wreaking havoc for motorists.  But according to Riccio, the storm should be not bear too much blame. He says New York’s problem with road surfaces stems chiefly from a different villain: poor maintenance.

Riccio, who led the City Department of Transportation under the Dinkins administration, analyzed almost 20 years of potholes and resurfacing data to investigate what caused a large number of potholes across the city. He found 80 percent of potholes are due to inadequate resurfacing while only 20 percent are due to the severe winter weather.

New York is not alone and potholes are just part of the problem. In Riccio’s opinion, lack of investment in the roads and highways is a key issue across across the country. He said that for the past 20 years, the U.S. hasn’t paid attention to its infrastructure or invested in engineers and technology to maintain the infrastructure. “We have a Third World infrastructure,” he said.

Potholes are created by the expansion and contraction of water entering the ground under the pavement. During the winter, as water seeps into the ground under the road surface, it freezes, accumulating more space. As a result, increased pressure on the road surface causes it to bend and crack, weakening the surface and resulting in potholes. Additionally, they may also be created as the weight of cars and trucks pass over the weak spot in the road. Riccio argues that a high number of potholes indicates a failure to maintain city streets: “Repairing potholes is far more costly than preventing them,” he said. “It costs the city more.”

Riccio  sent his findings to the city’s Department of Transportion Commissioner, Polly Trottenberg, last year. He says the department subsequently increased road-resurfacing efforts from 1,000 lane-miles to 1,200 in 2016.

The Department of Transportation said it plans to repair more potholes across all five boroughs in NYC next year, along residential streets and arterial roadways. In a press release in March 2016, the mayor announced that the city had filled the 1- millionth pothole in the city and pledged a further $242 million to repave the city’s roads over the next two years.

According to Riccio, the Mayor de Blasio inherited a resurfacing gap from the previous administration.

Since the mid-1990’s, only 600 lane miles per year have been resurfaced, instead of the 1,000 necessary to keep up with deterioration, he says. The decline in funding correlated with the increase in potholes. The city has gradually cut back its annual investment in road budget. From the mid-1990s till early 2000s, the number of streets of an acceptable standard fell to 70 percent and the average number of potholes in NYC increased to 200,000 to 300,000, Riccio says, where it stayed.Screen Shot 2016-04-27 at 7.18.14 AM

Riccio thinks it may take eight to 10 years of continuous repairs for NYC roads to reach an acceptable standard for a developed country. And According to Riccio, New Yorkers spend $800 per year on average in repair work and new tires due to potholes.

“Business is booming, “said Marcio Crociata, a part owner of Whitney’s Tire Service on Atlantic Avenue, Brooklyn. He explained that although potholes are good for his business he thinks they are bad for his customers.  “I repair blown tires and bent rims almost daily,” he said. He described how one customer had picked up his repaired car only to drive out straight into another pothole—damaging his vehicle again.

Riccio estimated that with the correct maintenance and investment the battle to reduce potholes in the city can be won. “We should see a drop of about 15,000 to 35,000 potholes by next spring,” he said.