When potholes in Winnipeg threaten to swallow cars whole, you can bet Coun. Kevin Klein will come to the rescue.
Klein has promised to demand council find money somewhere for an emergency pothole repair program that might require non-essential budget items to be cut. "The roads are literally falling apart… I think people are at the end of their rope and they are mad," Klein (Charleswood-Tuxedo-Westwood) told the Free Press.
Although his concern is admirable, his analysis of the problem of potholes leaves quite a bit to be desired, as does his solution. Klein should know that given the weather we’ve had this spring, there is no emergency solution to be had.
In a city where temperatures go from very hot to very cold, and where spring moisture is, well, a rite of spring, the size and number of potholes in this city are directly related to the number of times a road goes through what road engineers call the "freeze-thaw cycle."
Over the winter and into the spring, moisture slowly seeps into the road surface through cracks and gaps every time the temperature rises. When temperatures drop again overnight, the moisture freezes and expands. As it thaws, the moisture contracts and more wet stuff leaks into the pavement.
If enough of these cycles occur, the road starts to come apart in pieces.
Nobody needs to be told that the weather we’ve experienced this spring is nearly perfect for a pothole pandemic.
Remember all the snow and rain storms we’ve had in recent weeks? And then, how following the precipitation, the overnight temperatures dropped below freezing and went above zero during the next day?
When conditions such as this prevail, there is no material or method to defend roads.
But to Klein’s point, even if conditions have conspired against our roads this year, shouldn’t the city do something?
The awful truth is that for the vast majority of city streets, which are a combination of asphalt on top of original concrete and aggregate, it’s virtually impossible to perform significant or lasting repairs at this time of year. And this year, patching is just not working.
In a Free Press story, a city spokesman said moisture and repeated freeze-thaw cycles meant the "cold-mix patching material" used to temporarily fill potholes is not adhering to the road surface.
Perhaps Klein had envisioned more significant road repairs. Once again, circumstances conspire against us.
One of the biggest reasons we cannot do significant repairs to pothole-ravaged roadways right now is that it’s not safe yet to start moving heavy construction equipment on city streets. The equipment is so heavy, it risks inflicting more damage to waterlogged streets.
Suggesting the city steal money from “non–essential” programs verges on dangerous.
The inability to move heavy equipment is a big reason why a long, cold and wet spring significantly shortens the construction season in Manitoba. In most years, we need a swift conclusion to winter and minimal spring precipitation so that heavy trucks and excavation equipment can safely move about.
Some councillors seem to have figured this out.
In that same Free Press story, Coun. Jeff Browaty (North Kildonan) correctly identified rainfall and overnight freezing as "a recipe for disaster." Coun. Matt Allard (St. Boniface) suggested an emergency program for pothole repair was fiscally irresponsible, given that "any solution we put in practice today is going to be a very temporary one."
Coun. Scott Gillingham (St. James) noted city crews are already filling more potholes than usual. And finally, Coun. Brian Mayes (St. Vital) noted the city is already preparing to spend a record amount on road repairs this year.
That last point cannot be understated. The city has budgeted $165 million for road rehabilitation in the upcoming year, one year in a six-year program that will invest more than $870 million. There is little moral justification for spending more on roads when there are many other civic priorities that need support.
Either way, it would be more than irresponsible to throw a ton of additional money at potholes now when we do not have the conditions to provide lasting relief. Not that it isn’t tempting for councillors such as Klein.
Potholes are the top-of-mind concern for many Winnipeggers right now. Klein’s promise to use Thursday’s council meeting to demand an emergency repair program plays well with the pothole-obsessed. Even if there really isn’t much anyone can do, the politics behind Klein’s strategy is solid.
But it’s also misleading because this spring’s potholes are really a reflection of the state of our roads, and there certainly isn’t any magic fix. Suggesting the city steal money from "non-essential" programs verges on dangerous. What would Klein sacrifice? Would there be shorter library and pool hours? Less grass cutting this summer?
If the city could do more, then it should do more to help alleviate the potholes. And Klein’s plaintive cry for emergency pothole filling certainly suggests the city could do more.
But when you look at all of the circumstances that have conspired against our streets this spring, there isn’t really that much more we can do but wait for warmer, dryer weather.
Suggesting otherwise only builds unfair expectations.
Born and raised in and around Toronto, Dan Lett came to Winnipeg in 1986, less than a year out of journalism school with a lifelong dream to be a newspaper reporter.