Pothole season is here, and it really is worse than last year

Pothole filled road
There's a bumper crop of potholes in the Twin Cities this year.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson/File

If you've been out on the roads at all in the last week, you know that much of Minnesota is in the throes of that short season between winter and road construction. We're talking about pothole season. And after this year's especially harsh winter, just how bad are the potholes?

They're bad. Just ask Ethan Fawley, the executive director of the Minneapolis Bicycle Coalition. He offered a pedal-powered tour of his city's pothole situation over the weekend. It's still chilly, but now that the streets are in better shape for bicycling than they were a few weeks ago, Fawley is really getting to know the potholes along his route to work.

"The thing with potholes is there are different formations. You have the minefield where you may have a bunch scattered around. As a bicyclist, sometimes you can wind your way through. Then there are other ones. I call the ones that have water in them -- and you can't tell how deep they are -- I call those black holes, because sometimes you never know if that's going to be a three foot deep one," the south Minneapolis resident said. He bikes about 2.5 miles every day to his downtown office.

Ethan Fawley
Ethan Fawley, executive director of the Minneapolis Bicycle Coalition
Matt Sepic/MPR News

On the pothole tour he stops to describe the different kinds of holes he sees in the same way a geologist might talk about the various features in a desert canyon. First stop: the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood.

"We just passed a pothole where there was a hat in it. It's amazing how often you see hats or gloves or other things in potholes. You got to know too, it's going to fill up with water and then it's going to freeze. So you have to wonder how many different iterations is this hat going to go through over the next month before it gets filled in and becomes part of the street forever," he said. About a mile away -- where the Midtown Greenway crosses Minnehaha Avenue -- Fawley points out another formation in the asphalt that runs right along the southbound traffic lane. "It's almost like a moat. There's no way you can avoid this pothole. It's like 10 feet long!"

It's not difficult to find really bad spots in the city streets. But Fawley has nothing but praise for the city workers who are already out -- literally pounding the pavement -- filling in the ruts and potholes with asphalt and smoothing it over.

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Mike Kennedy, who's in charge of street maintenance at the Minneapolis Department of Public Works, said every year always seems to be the worst ever for potholes. But Kennedy said it's not your imagination. This year is really bad.

"When they appear, they explode everywhere, and nobody has the resources to be everywhere and attack everything all at once," he said. When the winter's heavy snow cover started to melt, it seeped down into cracks in the asphalt. Now it's refreezing and expanding, then thawing and contracting over and over again and collapsing the pavement above it.

This isn't a big a problem on newly-paved streets, which are freshly sealed. But on older pavement, he said it's hard to keep up with the work.

"Everything that we're doing right now, that anybody's doing across the metro area is still temporary patching, it's just filling the potholes, until we can get into the warmer summer season, get the good materials, use the proper procedures and techniques to make a good permanent repair," Kennedy said.

With all the damage to the roads this winter, Kennedy said both drivers and cyclists should be on the lookout for additional road crews as the weather warms up and pothole season becomes construction season.

Check out MPR News reporter Tim Nelson's day on a pothole patching crew from 2010.