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Brattleboro Public Works can barely keep up with the number of potholes this winter on town streets, including this one on Western Avenue.

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A rough winter pummels local roads

Brattleboro town employees scramble to keep up with pothole pandemic

BRATTLEBORO—Why are there so many potholes on Western Avenue? Why doesn’t the town do something about them? Didn’t that road just get repaved?

Department of Public Works Director Steve Barrett appeared at the March 6 regular Selectboard meeting to answer these questions and to explain the basics of pothole creation — and maintenance.

He also told the Selectboard it’s time to budget more money for road improvements.

Barrett, who became director in 1996, worked with the Board in 1997 on a five-year capital funding plan for the town’s roadways. They allotted $200,000 per year in the budget.

“In 2018, $200,000 of capital funding will pave less than a mile of roadway,” Barrett said.

“So, on average, we’ll pave a roadway about every 40 to 50 years,” he noted.

Selectboard member David Schoales asked for the current roadway budget.

“This year, $250,000,” Barrett said.

The recipe for a pothole

“The most notable and deplorable roadway in Brattleboro is Western Avenue,” Barrett said, and pointed out what most local drivers know: “The road surface has failed, resulting in an overabundance of potholes from Exit 2 to the West Brattleboro village."

Barrett said that with this winter’s multiple freeze-thaw cycles, “it’s a difficult year for roadways.” Sub-zero temperatures, he said, cause “frost actions,” which is when “the frost actually lifts the road up and then lowers the road down."

This up-and-down puts stress on the pavement. It develops cracks and holes. Those fill with water. The water weakens the soil beneath the pavement. Then, “traffic applies a load onto that,” said Barrett, “and it causes it to crack and fail.”

Thus, the recipe for a pothole.

Other areas of damage include the pavement surrounding water valve and utility covers. When it looks like they’ve sunk into a roadway, Barrett said, “they have not sunk. They have stayed in place. The road is elevated up, from the frost.” This causes further pavement deterioration.

Heavily used

What makes matters worse is heavy use on Western Avenue and what’s under the road’s surface.

In 2014, the town completed a scoping study on the road, Barrett said. “More than 13,000 vehicles, including 500 trucks, use [that road] a day,” he said.

Beneath the pavement lies a concrete roadway, Barrett explained. It was put down sometime in the 1940s or 1950s, when fewer cars and trucks traveled that road. The concrete is 18 feet wide, but the current road is between 30 and 36 feet wide, depending on the particular stretch. The edge of the road without concrete beneath is just hot mix — pavement — resting on soil. This creates instability.

Adding further complications are the expansion joints in the concrete, occurring at 20-foot intervals, which create cracks on the surface. Then water gets into the cracks. Then there’s another pothole.

“It can’t withstand those traffic loads,” Barrett said.

Who’s responsible?

Western Avenue is a Class 1 highway, Barrett said.

That means the state is responsible for resurfacing the roadway. The town is responsible for maintenance.

“We struggle, because when is it maintenance and when does [the road] need to be rebuilt?” Barrett explained.

In 2014, state grant funding paid for repaving Western Avenue, “and [that] provided a smooth road for three years,” Barrett said. “Since then,” he added, “that has broken down and we’re back to where we started in 2014 with the need” to have a larger, more costly capital project.

Local representatives are working on it, Barrett said, including Representative Mollie Burke, who has advocated for more state funding to fix Western Avenue.

“Can we ask the state to do it right” and remove the concrete, asked Selectboard member John Allen. “This three-year cycle, it’s not going to stop,” Allen said.

The state “gets it,” Barrett said, but demolishing the concrete is cost-prohibitive: “There’s miles and miles of roads like this in Brattleboro,” including Canal Street and Route 142.

How to patch a road

There are several methods, types of equipment, and “thousands of products” available to patch a road, Barrett said. His department uses a few of them.

The quickest fixes are cold patches. They have a life-expectancy of only a few weeks, but evidence remains until the next year, so DPW workers can easily identify the area.

The next-best option is the hot box. The DPW got one a few years ago, Barrett said, and it’s like a miniature hot-mix plant. Workers fill the box with the materials during the day, and overnight it heats up, using propane and electricity as fuel. The next day, it provides three tons of hot mix for workers to patch the roads. This method is effective because the heated paving material lasts longer, Barrett said.

“Three tons might sound like quite a bit,” he said, “but the other day we used 27 tons on Western Avenue."

The best solution — short of completely redoing a road — is to patch the pavement using hot mix from a hot-mix plant.

Hot-mix plants in New England don’t operate year-round, though.

“We were out searching for any hot-mix plant that might be open,” said Barrett, who added, “we’re not alone. This is a hard year for everyone."

Then, Barrett said, Warner Brothers saved the day. Not Warner Bros. as in Bugs Bunny, but the Warner Brothers hot mix plant in Sunderland, Mass.

“They contacted us,” Barrett said, and supplied 27 tons of hot mix, which he said is equivalent to four of the DPW’s larger dump trucks.

’The worst of the worst’

The town worked with DMI Paving to mill out old patch in most of the potholes on Western Avenue, and some other streets in town. “We got the worst of the worst,” Barrett said.

But it’s not just about filling the hole. Preparation is key.

“The hole is milled, sawed, jackhammered, then cleaned and dried, then a liquid tar tack-coat is applied, then hot mix is placed in the hole,” said Barrett.

But there’s more.

“Then,” Barrett said, “it’s either compacted with a roller or tamp so it has good compaction."

“That’s the best way to patch a hole. If you had all the people [and] resources in the world, you would go out and do that every single time,” said Barrett, “and that’s what we did last week."

“And it’s amazing,” noted Selectboard member Brandie Starr.

Even with the Sisyphean task of chasing endless potholes, the DPW will press on. Barrett said it’s their mission.

Putting in a quick cold patch may not last long, but even in the few hours after filling the hole, that effort “can prevent several hundred cars from damage or getting into an accident."

“That, to us, is worth it,” Barrett said. “So even in unfavorable conditions, we continue to patch."

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Originally published in The Commons issue #450 (Wednesday, March 14, 2018). This story appeared on page A1.

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