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The city of Missoula has borrowed an asphalt recycler from Bozeman's city government to repair the many potholes on the streets of the Garden City. Photo by KURT WILSON/Missoulian Kurt Wilson

The pothole perturbation broke out early this year on Missoula roads.

On some streets, it's more like a crater catastrophe in Sinkhole City.

Jennie Watson lives in the South Hills and drives down Hillview Way and across town to get to work every day.

"Coming down the hill just before the school is treacherous because the potholes are in a spot where you can't really stay in your own lane without hitting some of them hard," Watson said Tuesday.

The rapid freezing and thawing is pushing in potholes even in the thick of snowplow season. The asphalt keeps crumbling and even the patches need repatching.

"I think this year we've had more trouble with getting the pothole patch to last for more than a couple days," said Brian Hensel, city streets division superintendent.

So crews are dispatched to fill the holes that have drivers swerving and jerking. In the meantime, city officials note the potholes are breaking open on roads scheduled for maintenance - but not on newer or recently rebuilt streets.

"I don't consider that we're falling behind," said Bruce Bender, city chief administrative officer. "You always have so many blocks of your road that you're needing to improve or upgrade. Those roads that are in that condition during these very difficult weather times are going to be more vulnerable."

Watson, who has lived in Missoula some 30 years, said she hasn't damaged her car, but she's felt the impact.

"This year is worse than anything. I think it's partially the weather," she said, and she offered advice for other drivers. "Keep your eyes peeled. Avoid them if you can. If not, God bless you."

***

Hensel said pothole patching started earlier than usual this year, within the last month or so.

"We've been patching probably every work day for the last three weeks, if I can get guys out in between plowing," Hensel said.

Crews driving the streets make a note of pothole locations, and the public also contacts the streets division about them. The number to call to report a pothole is 552-6360.

"The public has been very helpful this year with letting us know. We've had a fair amount of calls," Hensel said.

One challenge this year is the moisture is making it so the "cold mix" used in the potholes doesn't work as well. This year, the streets division bought 30 tons of the mix - as it did last year, but Hensel he may need to purchase more depending on how long winter lasts.

"If the weather would cooperate with me, maybe it wouldn't be so bad," he said.

The money comes out of the $162,000 asphalt account, the same fund that buys asphalt in the summertime. The cold mix has cost $5,000 this year, and a different method, hot oil injections, has cost an estimated $6,000.

On Tuesday, workers were sucking up water pooling in the streets, and three pothole patching crews were on the job. That morning, Hensel gave two more crew members overtime to keep them out patching.

"We're working on them around the clock," Hensel said.

He said some of the worst streets are ones the city soon hopes to upgrade, such as Mullan Road, Russell Street, Greenough Drive and Van Buren Street: "Some of the problems that we've had are on streets that need maintenance - large amounts of maintenance."

On the other hand, Bender said newer portions of Brooks Streets, Orange Street and Higgins Avenue don't have the same problems. And there's a reason they are withstanding the freezing and thawing.

"They're doing quite well through this severe weather. Why? Because they have been recently overlaid in the last five years or so," Bender said.

The bumpier streets are in line for work: "The streets that we're having problems with are all high on our list for maintenance this coming year."

***

The pits have drivers swerving and reportedly even stuck, but city officials said emergency responders aren't slowed by the potholes. Police Sgt. Greg Amundson said the broken roads aren't lengthening response times.

Some bent rims on patrol cars have Lt. Chris Odlin wondering if potholes might be to blame, though.

"We've had some strange damage to wheels on our cars, which I suspect could be potholes but I'm not sure," Odlin said.

Assistant fire chief Jeff Logan used the opportunity to brag on his drivers. He said they're on top of their game, live in Montana where potholes are part of life, know how to avoid the holes in the road, and do their best to minimize damage to the fire trucks.

"It's not that our tires are huge, it's that our drivers are outstanding," Logan said.

He said they don't hit the public's cars when they're heading out to calls either.

The holes are a hazard, but city attorney Jim Nugent said he isn't aware of any lawsuits over potholes and the city isn't negligent or liable when it comes to pothole damage.

Reporter Keila Szpaller can be reached at @KeilaSzpaller, 523-5262, keila.szpaller@missoulian.com or on MissoulaRedTape.com.

 

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