Tony Balandiuk hit a pothole on his way home from work Monday night. It was so deep and broad that he felt the left side of his Nissan Leaf dip for a split second before his tires slammed into the void’s southern edge.
Within 30 seconds, the tire pressure light appeared on his dashboard. Fearing permanent damage, he limped his car off East Marginal Way — his route home from Amazon to West Seattle — into a nearby Les Schwab parking lot.
“It felt like probably the biggest pothole this car has ever seen,” he said.
Balandiuk’s left two tires were flat. Worse, the rims on both wheels were bent inward. It was 6 p.m. and Les Schwab was closing its doors, but they agreed to help him anyway. One worker asked him, “Was it right over here by the Jack in the Box?” Balandiuk, 44, said yes. “You’re not the first,” the worker told him.
The cost? $800.
The snow and ice of early January have receded from Seattle’s streets. Left in their wake are hundreds of concrete calderas, which first bulge as trapped water freezes and then collapse as temperatures rise again, creating political campaigns’ favorite frustration: the pothole.
Like migratory birds, potholes come and go with the seasons, increasing in number as the temperatures drop. So far, 2022 is looking to be a banner year for bumpy roads. In all of January last year, the Seattle Department of Transportation started 781 new work orders for pothole repairs. Only a third of the way through this January, the department has already filed 600 new orders, with new ones coming in every day.
Each hole presents a potential liability for the city: Seattle drivers filed 200 claims for damages related to potholes in 2021, with the city paying 83 of them. Data for 2022 was not immediately available.
Benjamin Hansen, a civil engineer with SDOT, isn’t sure how this month will stack up statistically, but he’s guessing it’s going to be a doozy.
“My impression, anecdotally, from people I’ve talked to and from being out driving different streets, is that it’s certainly going to be a tough spell for us,” he said.
On the day Balandiuk brought his car in, the same Les Schwab had seen roughly 10 others for pothole-related flats, said Sean Welsh, one of the workers there. Most weeks it’s just one or two.
“Every winter it does increase in number, but this year it definitely does seem weird,” he said.
The life cycle of a pothole begins with a cracked road and a road is cracked by age and heavy use.
“Seattle streets are very heavily loaded,” Hansen said. Metro buses, freight trucks, construction vehicles all pound and wear out the pavement.
As water seeps into the damaged roads, it does a number of things. For one, Hansen said, many Seattle streets are layered — with asphalt over concrete over old bricks or cobblestones. Moisture can separate those layers like a croissant, creating more cracks and vulnerabilities as heavy vehicles drive over them.
“Some of our original roadbeds date back to the early 1900s,” Hansen said. “These brick layers that are underneath the asphalt in a neighborhood like Capitol Hill or downtown or Pioneer Square were just designed in a different era that didn’t anticipate the loads that they currently carry.”
Water can also saturate the dirt below streets. As the soil freezes, it expands — just as pipes can burst in the cold — pushing the layers upward. When temperatures warm, the bulge drops, leaving a gap beneath the street surface, prime for a heavy vehicle to crush into a hole.
With rainfall setting record highs and air temperatures setting record lows, the conditions are perfect for potholes.
SDOT aims to repair every pothole within three business days of it being reported, which it did 85% of the time in 2021.
The department is more successful in some months than others, however. With so many new work orders and crews already overworked from snow response, spokesperson Ethan Bergerson said the public can expect it will often take longer than three days over the coming weeks.
The city has four crews that focus only on pothole repair all year. The department will shift as many as 75 workers from paving crews to pothole repair as needed, said Gerard Green, pavement engineering and construction division director. They will triage repairs, prioritizing the city’s arterials, Green said.
But as long as the weather is wet, those fixes are likely to be temporary. Patches applied now won’t seal fully and will almost certainly need repairs again.
“Filling potholes is a way to keep streets just serviceable enough that you’re not going to have damage to a vehicle, but the street is still going to be rough,” Hansen said. “The real solution is a more global rehabilitation, to repave the street.”
Bellevue sees relatively few potholes, even during hard-weather months. Crews there responded to just 185 in 2021, said Brian Breeden, transportation operations manager with the Bellevue Department of Transportation, almost all within an hour. The city only received five claims for damages in 2021. The small number reflects the city’s focus on prevention through repaving.
“Bellevue keeps their pavement rating at a higher index and the roads are in really good shape,” Breeden said.
Bellevue is a smaller and newer city with less heavy vehicle traffic than Seattle, making a direct comparison between the two difficult. Seattle has paved 163 lane miles since 2016, Bergerson said.
For Balandiuk’s part, he’s thankful that he could quickly pay to re-tire his car and that his kids weren’t sitting in the back. The city, he said, ought to focus on spreading awareness.
“I can’t remember a storm or a winter where the roads seemed this bad,” he said.