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Pothole season shines a light on infrastructure woes

Drivers are well aware that we’re in the midst of pothole season, that time of year where municipalities never quite keep up with the transition from snow-covered roads to something resembling the surface of the moon.

The drive down particularly bad roads can be akin to a slalom course as drivers attempt to stay out of the divots. For those craters that go unseen until late – or that can’t be avoided due to, say, oncoming traffic – the results can range from jarred teeth to costly car repairs, or likely some combination thereof.

In a new study, the Canadian Automobile Association (CAA) says we’re paying $3 billion every year in higher vehicle operating costs due to poor road infrastructure, with the average driver paying out $126 annually.

The CAA says the study is the first in Canada to show the cost to vehicle owners of poor roads, rather than focusing on how much it costs to build or repair them. The collective $3 billion comes in the form of more vehicle repairs, higher maintenance and other operating expenses.

An encounter with a pothole can run into the hundreds or thousands of dollars for tire, rim and suspension repairs and replacement.

Hitting potholes and consistently driving on poorly maintained roads throws out wheel alignment and diminishes the treads on tires, making it harder to steer in bad weather. In turn, this increases your risk of puncturing a tire.

The short-term solution is patching the holes, the whack-a-mole game municipal crews play every year at this time, one that always misses the cavern you just drove through on the way home. In the longer term, the idea would be to keep roads better maintained such that heaving and the resultant potholes are less frequent – let’s face it, there’s simply no avoiding at least some of those puddle-gatherers each spring.

Rutted gravel roads and pothole-strewn asphalt are largely unavoidable offshoots of winter, particularly one as rough and freeze-thaw prone as we’re currently experiencing. And there’s never enough money to fully stay on top of natural entropy.

To combat the decline into disorder, municipalities have largely adopted a somewhat counterintuitive technique of concentrating improvements on roads that are still in good shape – Woolwich’s keep-the-good-roads-good approach – whereby it’s much cheaper to regularly maintain a road’s integrity than it is to let it fall apart before rebuilding it.

Of course, there are plenty of roads that are more pothole and filler than they are contiguous pavement. At that point, it typically costs millions to make them passable again, usually because the underground services are decades old at that point and need to be replaced along with the road base, not just the asphalt surface.

Canada-wide, the CAA report notes the estimated cost of repairing just the surface of roads in fair, poor and very poor condition is north of $125 billion. The work won’t be done any time soon. The key is to stay ahead of the annual deterioration, but even that is a struggle, as spending priorities typically spread beyond infrastructure.

Drivers’ organizations such as the CAA are constantly lobbying for improvements to our roadways, compiling lists of the worst offenders when it comes to potholes and other road hazards. There is a push to get more of the tax money collected from drivers – through gas taxes and assorted license fees – directed at improving roads. Potholes are not just annoying, they’re dangerous and potentially costly if your car is damaged in what are sometimes canyon-like craters.

There will always be a lag between the appearance of potholes and when they can be fixed, but better road maintenance – e.g. more frequent resurfacing – would reduce the problems. There would be more money for such things if what motorists spent on gas taxes, licenses and the like weren’t siphoned off to often-less-useful or outright wasteful projects better loved by politicians.

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