January 30, 2011 in City

Clark: Adventures in pothole repair

By The Spokesman-Review
 
Dan Pelle photoBuy this photo

Doug Clark packs cold mix into a pothole on Cedar Road on Friday as Spokane Street Department employee Justin Perry supervises.
(Full-size photo)

In Spokane’s never-ending war on potholes, one thing is painfully clear.

I wouldn’t last two minutes in the fight.

I’m that freckle-faced young Revolutionary War drummer, blissfully tapping away until the cannon shells start shredding the front lines into human confetti.

Or I’m that chick you see in every horror movie. You know, the brainless babe who decides to go down into the dark basement to check on the weird noise she just heard.

I discovered this sad fact Friday morning. Mark Serbousek, Spokane’s Street Department director, agreed to let me visit a pothole repair crew that was patching weather-eroded sections of North Cedar Road.

He was a bit hesitant at first. The last time Serbousek made my column was when some unknown joker suspended inflatable plastic male genitalia from a bridge in the downtown business core.

Serbousek, the city operations engineer back then, said the story caught the public’s fancy and was disseminated far and wide. So much so that he received a call from his highly amused brother in Memphis, Tenn.

That is a hard way to make national news. But I assured Serbousek that my intent this time was entirely scientific.

See, Spokane’s pockmarked streets have been a civic punch line for as long as I can remember.

But this winter’s freeze/thaw cycle has been the perfect assembly line for the pothole manufacturing process.

You can’t drive anywhere without encountering gaping wounds in the pavement or sections of street that have the lumpy bumpy texture of peanut brittle.

The other night I pulled out of the Shadle Center.

WHAM!!!

My right front tire slammed into a chasm hard enough to make my teeth rattle.

Amazingly the tire didn’t blow, but it must be a banner year to be in the alignment business.

So I decided to go take a close look at what we’re doing about this mess.

“We are asphalt warriors,” said Serbousek, who is a really good guy. “We are competing against the deep darkness. It’s crazy.”

If only Spokane had a bigger army.

The city’s anti-pothole brigade consists of just two heated “thermolay” trucks and one pickup.

Even so, some 750 potholes have already been patched. By the end of the winter that number should swell to 5,000.

But how many potholes are lurking out there?

Serbousek chuckles. “More than I care to count.”

And more and more are being created every day.

It’s a lot like battling zombies, except potholes are much harder to kill.

Some of the worst potholes have had repatches on their repatches.

“This isn’t a perfect game,” lamented the street director as we pulled up to the North Cedar site.

We stepped out of Serbousek’s rig and sauntered over to where Justin Perry was working.

Wanting to get a taste of the job, I volunteered to do the tamping.

That drew some snickers, which I found demeaning.

Repairing a pothole does not exactly require genius skills like running a nuclear reactor, say, or writing three columns a week.

The first step is to sweep all the loose gravel and dirt out of the hole with an ordinary broom.

After that a sticky dark asphalt mixture is dumped into the hole from a chute jutting from the back of the truck. A shovel is then used to smooth the material so it covers all of the hole.

The tamper is the final step. It’s a long-handled tool with a flat steel end. All you have to do is grab onto it, spread your legs and pound that patch flat into place.

Easy, right?

Perry handed me the blunt-ended implement.

“Uh,” I asked, “what does this thing weigh?”

Perry told me it was about 40 pounds.

I commenced to tamping.

Woomph. Woomph. Woomph. …

I didn’t time myself. But I’m guessing I accomplished maybe 30 seconds of methodical tampage before I felt like paramedics might need to be summoned.

I turned in my tamper.

THUNK-THUNK-THUNK-THUNK …

Popeye forearms bulging, Perry set off on a tamping cadence that reminded me of Bobby Flay dicing carrots in an Iron Chef competition.

Impressive. But the truth is we need another thousand Perrys if we’re ever going turn back the pothole tide.

And in this economy? Dream on.

Budget cuts have already thinned the Street Department.

Besides, the city has bigger priorities. Like putting charging stations in the City Hall parking lot for all the nonexistent electric cars.

There’s only one thing to do. The citizens of Spokane need to take a cue from the heroes who founded this country.

Take to the streets with tampers in hand. Together we can win back Spokane one pothole at a time.

Just don’t look to me for any help. I’m all tamped out.

Doug Clark is a columnist for The Spokesman-Review. He can be reached at (509) 459-5432 or by e-mail at dougc@spokesman.com.


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