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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Getting There: Spokane street crews work complicated by winter

A car drives along a pothole-laden street in the 400 block of West Seventh Avenue on Jan. 20 in Spokane.  (COLIN MULVANY/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

Every year, winter weather conditions complicate road maintenance in Spokane.

Freezing and thawing water can rupture asphalt, leaving behind muddy potholes. Street sweepers are put on ice until the snow melts. The plows deployed in their stead struggle to find a place to dump all of the accumulating snow.

“There are 2,200 lane miles of streets in the city,” said Spokane Streets Director Clint Harris. “There aren’t any two miles that are really the same.”

In a given day, two pothole repair crews are circling the city, one committed to the north end of town, the other the south, Harris said.

But there are too many potholes for the crews to fix at once, especially during winter. To make the best use of the workers’ time, the department pulls up a map of potholes throughout the city that have been reported by residents through the city’s 311 phone line or website.

The streets typically get prioritized by the severity of the roadwork needed, Harris said, but the city is also split into quadrants that are each supposed to receive relatively equal attention. Some streets might also be temporarily skipped because resources aren’t available, or because more drastic repairs are slated for the near future.

Other roads are under a constant state of repairs throughout the season, Harris noted, pointing to thoroughfares off the South Hill like Thor and Freya streets.

“They require the trucks to continually be working on them,” he said.

Potholes are increasingly common in the winter, when melting snow seeps into defects in the surface of the pavement, where it freezes and expands, Harris said. This can be particularly problematic on older stretches of road that were paved without adequate road base or even directly on top of soil, creating “mud boils,” Harris said.

“The freezing will cause the surface to heave, and then driving over it will push mud through the surface of the street,” he continued. “Because of the roadbed, some streets are worse than others.”

Not only are new potholes more common in the winter, but repairs are unlikely to last as long because crews have to switch from a hot mix to a cold mix of asphalt to fill the holes, which doesn’t adhere and seal up as well. Heavy traffic can even cause the material to pop out of the recently filled pothole, Harris noted, but cold mix is the only option available.

An unusually blustery December also caused problems in the supply chain for pothole repairs, with a long string of closures of Snoqualmie Pass preventing deliveries of pothole patch materials that the city uses.

One of the most important maintenance jobs during the winter is, of course, plowing all that snow off the streets in the first place. And though snow accumulation has been mild in January, the season started with a bang.

By mid-January, there had been three full-city plows, the most in the last decade, maintaining more than 10,000 lane miles, wrote Kirstin Davis, communications manager for the city’s Public Works division.

Much of the snow plow operations are targeted to particular areas, rather than aiming to cover the entire city, Harris said.

“We’re always focused on maintaining safe streets for the public, so we focus around the hills, the hospitals, the business area,” he added.

Even as the city makes investments in a more bike-, pedestrian- and transit-friendly city, most Spokane residents still use cars to travel across town. The first priority for plow crews is clearing the roadway, even if that means clogging the bike lanes or sidewalks with excess snow, Harris said.

“It’s not as though we feel bicycles aren’t as important,’ Davis said.

“But when you have the majority of your traveling through those arterials and you have freight coming through – those arterials are our economics lifeblood, and the reality is most people are driving on those arterials.”

Spokane’s winter road maintenance also has been confounded by an unusual consideration: leaves falling in January instead of November.

Typically, the street crews try to finish sweeping streets of the leaves before snow begins to accumulate, Harris said. But a record-breaking warm October followed by a sudden drop into subzero temperatures this winter meant many trees did not lose their leaves at the end of fall.

The street sweepers can’t be run when there’s snow on the ground, not to mention the sweepers are operated by the same crews that run the snow plows.

“Until the snow melts, it’s a challenge,” Harris said.

Despite challenges, the Street Maintenance Division has largely been able to maintain staffing levels, with a slew of two- and three-decade veterans steadily retiring.

It takes a lot of time to teach the next generation of road maintenance workers all they need to run the plows, the sweepers and the pothole repair trucks. But with a staffer dedicated entirely to training new hires, the department is almost fully staffed.

Road maintenance also heavily relies on support from across city government, Harris said.

“We rely on the 311 folks, the communications people, the water department crews that augment our crews, park crews that treat sidewalks,” Harris said.

“Street crews would not be able to maintain the slick streets by themselves,” he added. “It takes everybody working together to keep streets safe.”