By Doug Ireland
---- — It’s usually in March that public works crews find local roads filled with potholes.
But this year is an exception.
A winter characterized by unusual fluctuations in temperature and occasional heavy rain has led to a plethora of potholes — and it’s only January.
As a matter of fact, some communities already had their road crews out as early as December, patching potholes before they became small craters that could damage a car’s alignment or flatten a tire.
“Due to the weather and extreme temperature changes this winter, it’s creating more potholes to fill than past winters,” said David Van Dam, Haverhill Mayor James Fiorentini’s chief of staff. “Potholes aren’t new to us, but they are new to us at this time of year.”
The rate at which potholes have been forming has been about as unpredictable as New England weather. Temperatures that climbed into the 50s only days ago are expected to remain below 20 degrees until at least Saturday, when they are to soar into the 30s before plummeting again Sunday.
Constant thawing and freezing creates more and more potholes.
“This is an unusual year because of the extreme temperature swings, where it goes from 7 degrees one day to 50 degrees the next,” Van Dam said.
Haverhill’s Department of Public Works began filling potholes last month and hasn’t stopped.
Ray DiFiore, director of the Methuen Department of Public Works, said his crews have also been out since December. The city has already spent more than $3,000 filling potholes on side streets.
“We’ve seen more potholes than usual and most of them are not on the main drag,” he said.
Dealing with potholes and frost heaves can be frustrating.
“Tis the season,” Lawrence public works director John Isensee said. “It’s a New England tradition, although it is not something we’re happy about.”
In Southern New Hampshire, public works officials are also disheartened by the number of potholes they are seeing.
“This winter has been wicked hard,” Atkinson road agent Ted Stewart said. “You couldn’t have a worse winter scenario.”
His crew recently took advantage of the warm weather to fill in potholes on four streets. But he knows that with temperatures below freezing this week and a brief thaw expected this weekend, there will be more potholes soon.
In Salem, Public Works Department director of operations David Wholley said his crew has been busy filling in potholes, especially on North Policy Street, which is slated for reconstruction. A crew was out there yesterday as well.
Kingston road agent Richard St. Hilaire agreed it’s already been a tough year. He said it’s already been the worst season for potholes in close to 15 years.
“We’ve already used more cold patch this year than we use in an annual spring cycle,” he said.
St. Hilaire said his crew also started filling in potholes in December — something that’s usually not done for at least another month.
“We were out in December, which is crazy,” St. Hilaire said.
He has already used about 8 tons of cold patch. The town usually uses 8 to 10 tons by April 15, St. Hilaire said.
Public works officials in several towns including Derry, said their communities are spending less money on maintenance than in past years because they are trying to reconstruct roads before they become a serious problem.
“Derry has fared better than many of our neighboring communities,” public works director Michael Fowler said. “The reason being is we’ve had a very aggressive pavement management program supported by the Town Council.”
In communities such as Haverhill, residents are urged to report potholes. It can even win them money.
Last spring, all Haverhill residents who reported a pothole on a city street were entered into a drawing where three lucky winners each won a $25 gift card donated by local businesses.
The Bay State also promotes the reporting of potholes. If you see a pothole in Massachusetts, call MassDOT at 857-DOT-INFO (857-368-4636), toll free at 877-MA-DOT-GOV (877-623-6846), or visit the department’s online contact information Web page to send an e-mail.
Staff writers Yadira Betances and Mike LaBella contributed to this report.