AUGUSTA, Maine — As sure a sign of spring as the first robin is the appearance of bone-rattling potholes and frost heaves on Maine roads every year at this time.
While the jolting and jarring may be frustrating for drivers, it’s even worse for the Department of Transportation. Officials have to bear the brunt of the complaints because no matter how many potholes they patch, new ones continue cropping up.
“It’s a typical kind of year — this happens every year,” Brian Burne, a DOT highway maintenance engineer, said this week. “We’re starting to do some patching, seeing more frost heaves and posting roads against heavy loads.”
The state highway system has 8,300 miles of roads, more than 1,500 miles of which were never built to modern standards, and 2,700 bridges to maintain. Burne said it is those 1,500 miles of roads that were never built properly that cause most of the problems and sustain most of the damage.
Many of the substandard roads were once wagon paths that were paved over in the 1920s and 1930s and have been resurfaced and patched ever since. Curves may have been straightened, new culverts installed and grades improved, but in most cases the subsurface remains the same, he said.
A good road has a solid base, Burne said. Just as a bad foundation can wreak havoc on the structure of a home, the same is true for a road with a poor base. Roads such as Interstate 95 rarely experience the winter-related damage that the smaller collector roads and local roads encounter.
The deterioration combination works the same every year, Burne said. As the frost under the road recedes during the spring thaw, the pavement cracks and soils beneath it become saturated. Without a strong base, potholes appear and the pavement buckles.
“Water and traffic create potholes,” Burne said. “You add to that heavy trucks and that can destroy a road pretty quickly. We’ve had trucks go right straight through the pavement. … This will go on for as long as there’s frost in the ground.”
One road that attracted a lot of attention last year was Route 52, which arcs from Camden through Lincolnville before ending in Belfast. The road was in such poor condition that Lincolnville residents petitioned their select board to withhold payments to the state until it was repaired. They also inundated Gov. John Baldacci and the DOT with letters and e-mails asking for relief.
The governor got a firsthand look at the road last winter when he met with residents over the matter. He left them with a pledge to fix it, a promise that was kept this past summer when the DOT completed a $1.4 million resurfacing project. Although the road still has a poor base, drivers can at least travel the speed limit without blowing tires, damaging front ends or breaking springs.
“It’s better than it was the last couple of winters, that’s for sure,” Lincolnville Town Manager David Kinney said. “We’re seeing some cracking now, but the patch seems to have served its purpose so far. We do appreciate what the DOT did; they did what they told us they would do. Up until a couple of weeks ago, it’s been just great, and it’s still worlds ahead of what it was like last year.”
Burne said Route 52 was not “built to modern engineering standards” and would always require extra maintenance. He said the department’s goal was to identify roads that have similar problems and catch them before the damage becomes excessive.
“We’re watching on a daily basis,” Burne said. “It’s not something we take lightly.”
For information on posted roads visit maine.gov/mdot/postedroads/index.htm.
To learn what causes a pothole visit maine.gov/mdot/mlrc/potholes.php.