Champaign potholes still costly to city, drivers

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Darrell Hoemann/C-U Citizen Access

A pothole on Elm Street in Champaign on November 2.

Despite a drop in requests to fix potholes on the streets of Champaign, potholes remain costly to the city.

In the fiscal year ending June 30, 2016, the city’s public works department responded to 329 pothole service requests from residents — a slight decrease from the 397 service requests in the previous fiscal year.

The Champaign public works department fills about 21,000 potholes yearly, at roughly of $6.80 per pothole or about $142,800 a year, according to public information officer Kris Koester.

Kris Koester, left, the administrative services manager and public information officer, and assistant city engineer Chris Sokolowski at the Champaign public works department on November 16.

Darrell Hoemann/C-U Citizen Access

Kris Koester, left, the administrative services manager and public information officer, and assistant city engineer Chris Sokolowski at the Champaign public works department on November 16.

The two most recent fiscal years paled in comparison to the year ending in 2014, when Champaign had it its worst winter in over a decade and public works crews respond to 626 service requests.

During that fiscal year, 382 — or 61 percent — of pothole service requests came during winter, when 43.4 inches of snow fell in Champaign. That’s more than 20 inches greater than received during an average winter.

Champaign has an average annual snowfall of 23.2 inches, according to the Illinois State Water Survey.

During the winter of 2014-15, the city saw a snowfall of 26.1 inches. That winter, public works crews responded to 147 service requests.

In the winter of 2015-16, when 12.6 inches of snow fell, the public works department got 82 service requests.

Potholes aren’t just a problem for the public works department. They’re costly to city motorists, too.

Nationwide, damage from potholes costs drivers about $3 million per year, according to a study by AAA. The study estimates that over the course of the last five years, potholes have resulted in $15 billion in car damage.

As costly as pothole damage can be, the city rarely pay out damage claims to drivers.

Between January 2015 and June 2016, drivers made 18 claims alleging the city was liable for pothole-related auto damage. The city did not pay out on any of these claims.

In 2014, there were a total of 77 claims against the city — 72 of which occurred between January and June of that year. The number of claims filed in 2015 was 15, while there had only been three claims made through June 2016.

Between 2011 to 2013, the city took 62 pothole damage claims, according to an article in the News-Gazette in June 2014. The city paid on only three of those claims for a total of about $1,700.

Per state law, municipalities and public employees are protected from liability as long as streets and roads are kept in a reasonably safe condition. For drivers, this means being stuck with the tab for repairing auto damage.

John Caywood, a State Farm agent in Champaign, said he receives multiple calls per month regarding claims related to pothole damage, but most of them aren’t related to regular city streets.

“This happens often, however most of the more significant claims come from potholes on interstates, highways and off-ramps,” Caywood said in an email.

Caywood said one ways cities can help drivers is by making them aware of possible problems.

“My opinion is potholes should be marked if possible, or the city may be responsible,” he said.

Potholes are also costly to the city in terms of expenditures on asphalt, the main material in filling potholes.

During the busy winter of 2013-14, the city spent $785,505 on asphalt. In winter 2014-2015, the city spent $732,477, about a seven percent decrease from the prior year. In the most recent fiscal year, the city spent $727,494. In the current fiscal year, public works is projected to spend $777,918.

But not all purchases of asphalt go directly to potholes, as some of the expenditures go to asphalt overlays and larger street projects, repairs and construction.

Another large expense related to pothole patching is equipment, particularly trucks and trailers for transporting asphalt.

Though most potholes are filled manually by workers shoveling asphalt into potholes, public works also uses a pothole sprayer-injector truck and a hot-asphalt truck, both of which make filling potholes more efficient.

In fiscal year 2015-16, the public works department made multiple vehicle purchases associated with pothole patching. On February 16, 2016, the city made a bid to purchase an asphalt patch trailer for a total of $116,982.

The city awarded bids to Koenig Body & Equipment in Peoria for $35,943, Galva Road Equipment LLC in Galva, Illinois, for a combined $57,368 and Spalding Mfg, Inc. in Saginaw, Michigan for $23,671.

Earlier in the same fiscal year, on July 8, 2015, the city made a purchase for a truck mounted asphalt pothole patcher. Three bids were awarded to Rush Truck Center in Champaign for a combined $460,729, while another bid was awarded to Truck Centers Inc. in Morton, Illinois for $140,547.