The Lead

Winter weather swings could make potholes worse than usual, PennDOT says

By: - February 25, 2019 6:32 pm

If you thought Pennsylvania’s roads couldn’t get any worse, the state’s top transportation expert has bad news for you.

Pennsylvania transportation Secretary Leslie Richards told the Senate Appropriations Committee Monday that her office is expecting a worse-than-usual season for potholes this spring due to extreme temperature fluctuations over the winter.

Potholes form when asphalt expands in cold air and then contracts during a thaw. Pennsylvania’s freeze-thaw cycles create the perfect conditions for potholes to form, and they’ve been more dramatic this winter than in the past, Richards said.

In the first week of February alone, daily highs ranged from the low-teens to mid-60s, according to a Middletown weather station report.

Thanks to some unseasonably warm temperature spikes, Richards expects potholes will start to form earlier than usual this year.

Potholes may also be larger and more numerous than in years past, she said.

PennDOT district offices repair potholes using funds from their maintenance budgets. Richards said those budgets could be strained this year if her pothole predictions come to pass.

Freeze and thaw cycles aren’t the only weather pattern putting pressure on PennDOT funds this year. Richards told the committee that PennDOT disbursed $127 million in emergency funds last year to repair damage from flooding — more than four times its $30 million emergency fund budget.

2018 was the warmest year on record in Pennsylvania, PennDOT spokesperson Erin Waters-Trasatt said. Periods of intense rain, particularly in the summer months, led to more than 400 geological slides across the state.

A slide occurs when rock or soil becomes unmoored and starts to move down a slope, usually over wet sediment.

PennDOT has received partial reimbursement for some of those projects and is seeking more from federal agencies, Richards said. Some of those funds could take two years to materialize.

Scientists predict that climate change will lead to warmer, wetter weather in much of the United States, including Pennsylvania.

Richards said she understands the consensus of the scientific community. But she said that anticipated costs of climate change are not yet bearing out in PennDOT’s proposed budgets.

The agency asked lawmakers to keep its $30 million emergency funding budget flat in the 2019-20 fiscal year.

“We’re hoping 2018 was an unusual year,” Richards said.

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Elizabeth Hardison
Elizabeth Hardison

Elizabeth Hardison covered education policy, election administration, criminal justice and legislative news for the Capital-Star from Jan. 2019-April 2021. You can find her on Twitter @ElizHardison.