Thursday, March 12, 2009

Potholes: A Microcosm of Pittsburgh's Challenges

On Wednesday, Mayor Luke Ravenstahl held a news conference in Banksville announcing an "aggressive pothole-patching effort".

He said the city will have "more employees behind pothole patching" in 2009, and touted a new city website,

The venue could not have been more appropriate. The neighborhood was situated on a steeply tilted rolling plain, facing south, away from town. Private repair crews were working all throughout the vicinity to attend to situations. A detour was necessary even to approach the site of the news conference.

Ravenstahl said that "all the potholes" in the area would be patched within a week's time. 50 public workers would attend to the fix-up over a 24-hour span. He noted that the effort fits into his 11-point Blueprint for Renaissance III through #9: clean and safe streets.

According to the mayor, the city would "start out with cold patch now", and when the "weather breaks" city workers would return to apply "a more durable patch". He also acknowledged that "there are areas we'll patch two or three times in the spring."

Ravenstahl quoted President Obama directing that the recently passed federal stimulus bill should encourage projects like "grinding asphalt, paving roads and filling potholes." The mayor said that "I'll make that commitment today," that a significant portion of the stimulus would go towards "infrastructure".

It's not in my notes, but the Post-Gazette reminds us:

Mr. Ravenstahl said this year's bumper crop of potholes is partly an outgrowth of the city's more vigorous plowing and salting of streets. "Unfortunately, we're paying now for our aggressiveness." (P-G, Jon Schmitz)

Before the news conference, we met a Banksville resident named Caryn. As Caryn came down her driveway, I asked if she was coming to inquire about potholes. She said yes she was -- but also, "there used to be a mirror" at the intersection at which the news conference was being held.

The two roads came at each other at an acute angle and from different sea levels, so the mirror was useful for checking for oncoming traffic. About six months ago, said Caryn, the mirror cracked, then broke, then disappeared.

While I was holding a sidebar with Art Victor and Wendy Urbanac, Caryn held her own conversation with Mayor Ravenstahl. We rendezvoused later at the foot of her driveway, and she looked quite pleased.

"He said he's going to look into it," she said.

We stayed to chat about potholes for awhile, and about the "bituminous coal" the city uses for patching, and about asphalt, and finally the concrete Caryn says they use in upstate New York. Mayoral press secretary Joanna Doven came over to join us for some of it.

"What I want to know," Caryn from Banksville said, " is why can't they fix it right the first time?'

"You should ask Kaz," Doven suggested to us, speaking of public works Director of Operations Rob Kaczorowski. It appeared that he was just leaving, but we arranged that I would get in touch with him.


"If we had an unlimited budget, concrete would be a great way to go," Kaczorowski acknowledged. However, he said it costs at least "four times as much."

Regarding the types of asphalt we use for paving and the types of patch we use for potholes, those materials "go out for bid every season -- bids go out and we get what they put out". The material we use for coal patch is a "high-grade" type that meets "state specifications."

Patch actually works better for deeper potholes, Kaczorowski tells us, than for very shallow ones. When the patch goes deep enough it can harden and stabilize appropriately. For inch to inch and a half deep potholes -- "they're annoying" Kaz acknowledges -- there's not much to be done in the way of repairing them.

We asked if the problem was our asphalt -- is it a lower quality product, or does it break down into potholes too easily. "There are other mixes and materials out there. We got a test sack from the Controller's office," Kaczorowski said as an example.

The Department of Public Works utilized the contents of Michael Lamb's "test sack" near the top of McArdle Roadway. Since it was a limited quantity, it can now be viewed supplemented with a jumble of regular old stuff.

We asked Kaz about the likelihood of switching over to the newer stuff, if it is more durable and results in less repairs in the long run. "We're looking at that -- but it's so costly!" he winced.


I wasn't surprised that a higher-quality asphalt mixture would be more costly up-front -- but my thinking was that if the City Controller recommended it to the Department of Public Works after a Street Maintenance performance audit, he must have done so with a conviction that fewer and less costly repairs make it a superior choice in the long run.

There was no avoiding it -- I'd have to look at the audit.

In so doing, I didn't find anything about a "test sack" of asphalt -- but I did learn about Superpave, the PennDOT-approved contract for asphalt with only certain specifications, which the Commonwealth encourages the City to "piggyback" upon. I could find no recommendations as to whether or not higher-quality asphalt would be more cost-effective if we forwent or sought to alter the state contract. Yet the audit arrived with a test sack of something.

I also discovered that although sealing the cracks in asphalt prevents the costly eruption of potholes down the road, according to DPW, "crack sealing has not been recently used because we have been putting all of our money into repaving." The audit recommends a crack-sealing program.

I further discovered that despite new policies and procedures including a formal annual repaving "list" of streets based on quantitative, needs-based "scores", half of the streets which actually got repaved turned out not even to have appeared on the predetermined list.


So when it comes to using materials that are more cost-efficient in the long run -- when it comes to ensuring that small problems are not permitted to erupt into big ones -- and when it comes to actually submitting to the scientific methodologies which we say we have instituted, it turns out that Pittsburgh is not getting it done.

It seems we prefer to confront those problems which erupt before us "aggressively", and put off doing newly suggested things -- things which may appear costly at first, or seem like royal pains-in-the-ass, but are likely to result in a more manageable world for everyone.


This question reminds me precisely of our first interview with then-Prothonotary Michael Lamb almost two years ago. We return to that interview already in progress.

The controller's office and many city departments are not even using the same accounting software, he says, and that makes it hard to function.

He has encouraged city government to make some upgrades, but, he says, "I'm dealing with that resistance."

Is "that resistance" what he would call a "Pittsburgh thing"?

"I don't want to say it's not disciplined," he begins, "but there's a failure to stay ahead on the tech curve." He describes a city that reacts to stress by falling back on what is familiar -- even if it fails to address the actual problem. (Comet, 4/24/07)

Photo #2, "Luke and Rob", Jeff Swensen, NYT


  1. Ok, So Kaz was leaving the waste-of-time press conference that announced that the City was going to do it's job this year.


    By any chance did you ask where he was going? Was he arranging for more city owned trucks to assist him with his own property improvement projects?

    Or was he going to hang out and eat cake all day with the council people?

    Either way, the guy is a turd.

  2. half of the streets which actually got repaved turned out not even to appear on the predetermined list.

    Is this a surprise? This is Pittsburgh. It's called politial paving. Committee members and ward chairs get first priority.

    From July 1, 2008:
    Mayor Luke Ravenstahl plans to pay Iowa-based CarteGraph $30,000 to install a computer system by next year that would prioritize paving and extract politics from the process.

    So according to our Mayor, the new system should be in place by now. Just in time for the stimulus funds.

  3. Anon 5:04 - Kaczorowski and I spoke over the phone -- though rest assured he left well after the event in Banksville had concluded. Although I'm new to the DPW scene, I've been to Council's offices many times and I have never seen any cake.

    TheTruth - It could certainly be argued that road situations erupt, and from time to time the City had better work outside the plan. But according to the audit, half the streets failed to match up? I agree it sounds like we didn't follow through on something we said we'd institute.

  4. Bram,

    Smith started her tenure on council with cake and employees on the clock doing nothing but hanging out. Matt blogged about it but glossed over this fact. In fact, he took pictures!

  5. "cold-patch", as opposed to "hot-patch", not coal-patch.


  6. you're all missing the part about how the city is effin' broke - technically and financially. Standards, benchmarks, pre-determined metrics, waypoints, stations, distances and offsets could all be met or exceeded, if the city had the munneh to hire the professional and technical in-house labor force, as well as, equipment and materials to investigate, review, develop, formulate, implement and monitor quality solutions to the nagging maintenance issues plaguing our city.

    There is planned maintenance which is budgeted and scheduled years in advance, that responds to and learns from issues with previous maintenance tasks and anticipates the needs in a pragmatic way. And then there's reactionary, half-assed, ill-conceived, "if it worked here before, it should work again" kind of maintenance.

    One requires a history of the city's infrastructure, oversight and management from professional employees, service from technically proficient foremen and laborers, proper equipment and materials and a sound budget. The other requires live bodies, the Costars program, a Contractor's Card from Home Depot and the occasional unencumbered funds.

  7. Anon 6:50 - If I understand correctly, pothole patch is made from a coal/tar emulsion and can be utilized both hot (preferable) and cold (in a pinch). "Bituminous coal" was Caryn's contribution, and it may be correct for all I know -- it's probably not subbituminous or anthracite.

    n'at - Borrow the money today, reap the cost savings down the road? It's how we do a lot of things. And most of these solutions sound like they're already pretty well researched and developed already. They just need done.

  8. Bram!? Borrow money to pay for operating costs? I think that has been done ;)

    Deferred maintenance is the issue.

    We maintain what we have, and we lengthen the service life of our infrastructure. For example, asphalt cement concrete pavement: If we fix spawls, cracks and holes in asphalt pavement properly, seal joints, use performance overlayments, then the motoring public has a safer, smoother ride for 10 or 15 years instead of 5. If we don't properly fix spawls, cracks, holes, seal joints, etc., then the motoring public will endure rough, jarring and potentially unsafe driving conditions until the pavement is deteriorated enough to warrant a "Capital Improvement Project".

    The lol part is that the public gets from A to B regardless: Either they bitch about the cost of taxes to properly maintain the smooth and safe road, or they bitch about the potholes. Which do you believe a politician can endure?

  9. To be honest, I can't believe there haven't been any "test sack" jokes made yet. I know this blog is noted for its decorum and political discourse, but there has to be a "test sack" joke out there somewhere.

  10. n'at - While I wouldn't term start-up investments for new maintenance procedures to be true "operating costs", I acknowledge the difficulty and I really should have first suggesting tapping some of the $100 million budget surplus -- the primary purpose for most of which, as far as anyone can see, is cosmetic.

    Peaks and Gutters - We threw it out there for people. I don't know what to tell you.

  11. "In fact, he took pictures!"

    I didn;t take any pictures. A friend took pics on her IPHONE & sent them to me.

    Another post where I am brought up in the comments. What a love affair.

  12. N'at:

    When Caliguiri ran for mayor as an independent (he was already mayor, but had to run against the party endorsed candidate Tom Foerster), Frank Gigliotti was the mayors top fundraiser and political ally. Gigliotti and Caliguiri arranged to have pretty much every major street in Pittsburgh paved. Caliguiri had Renaissance II, BTW.

    As a side note, this is why candidates of either party who run in the primary cannot run in the general. Foerster made that happen.

    But anywho, I frickin hate potholes, so declaring war on them gets kudos from me, even if he's stealing from Caliguiri's playbook.


  13. Lady E... one reason that paving strategy worked so well was because it was preceded by Flaherty's budgets had really gut the money put into roads in order to save money and lower taxes... some may have liked that, but not everyone. and then the problem was that when everything was paved, it was mostly inch thick election year special that barely lasted to the election. Neither strategy works well for the long haul. But potholes may be the rosetta stone of Pittsburgh politics.

    n'at's right... I remember when they sealed most everything before the winter set in each year... do they do that at all anymore? and let's not forget that Act 47 mandated that the city's asphalt plant be sold. It could have provided for something better than cold patch which is all the city can afford to keep up.

  14. Another post where I am brought up in the comments. What a love affair.

    So you come in here just to mention that? Make a note of it?? Why not just go back to your hole? We saw the post, get over yourself.

    I would almost bet you wear makeup Mr. Vain.

  15. Chris asked,

    I remember when they sealed most everything before the winter set in each year... do they do that at all anymore?

    According to that report, there's no sealing going on anymore. Just patching.

    Hmmm ... that's right, Act 47 made us sell our asphalt plant ... is it too much to suspect they did so to consolidate the state's little Superpave asphalt racket? I can't imagine such a thing is good for the asphalt market or for product innovation, but it's probably good for whichever vendors our state leaders would like it to be good for.

  16. matt h bashers are jokes---complete jokes---just like their pathetic lives.

  17. whats up with all of the hatred across the blog comments about zober, ravenstahl, matt h, anthony coghill...????

  18. I remember hearing an NPR story about how Europeans spend more time at paving, really packing down the ground much more than we do. It is more inconvenient up front by a few days but the paving job last a lot longer. But I an hardly a civil engineer, so I am not going to venture an opinion on effectiveness of any one material or method past that.

    Potholes are a fact of life around here. I can see the point about sealing cracks in the fall, but a lot of our streets have so many potholes that sealing would be a huge undertaking. And the City is broke and might be getting worse. So at least we should all see the War on Potholes as the empty election year gimmick that it is. It would be nice if the Mayor paid attention to the Controller's recent audit, but I can't imagine what will force him to.

    Nice post, btw, Bram.

  19. Potholes are least of problems. 12.21.12 presents bigger problem.

    Did you know, (ms smarty pants lawyer), that divorce law originated as far back as 2500 BC. I suspect that, unlike today, it was designed to protect men. Found this out quite by accident....while studying mysteries of accent Egypt. Old testament speaks of accent civilization(s). (Jewish author, not bible.)

    Mayan civilizations built pyramids as well...indigenous tribes from around the world believe power of accent religion, thus... they believe in mother earth... feel that we are entering the "Age of Aquarius". Science shows that earth "wobbles" on axis...and magnetic fields change as a result. Electricity as we understand it, is based on magnetic field. We duplicate this in everyday life. All motors have magnets...and all magnets are based on mother magnet (earth). Batteries have two poles....even the one in your watch.

    I feel like doing happy dance! Scientists are already evaluating the earth's wobble...some suggest this may further explain global warming...I may have suggested this in court.

    The entire electrical grid on earth has been has cycle of 12960 years. It will be the first time humankind will have dealt with such an event, as electricity in captured form, is a relatively new experience for humans. On generators in power plants, the adjustment if memory serves me, is called an exciter. The only question to be answered are the exciters engineered to accommodate the shifting of the earths axis and the flow of magnetic forces.

    The doomsayers, in a worse case scenario claim that the earths poles will "switch". In that will be every man for himself...and warm beer as there will be no refrigeration unless we go back to the ice-age.

    Speaking of beer, sounds like a good idea..given the mecurical nature of future.


    PS: The Comet seems to be appropriate place for this post...Congrats Bram, nice piece in my favorite news paper.

  20. Superpave ... that rings a bell. Isn't that the stuff they used on the Parkway West a few years ago that was supposed to last decades, but had to be replaced in 2 or 3 years because it deteriorated so badly?

  21. Correction: They used it on the Turnpike and it deteriorated so badly they had to replace it after a few years.

  22. Solution for potholes is like explanation for black holes...they exist! In theory.


  23. Mayor should campaign on promise to REDUCE the total miles of Pgh alleys, streets, roads.

    Other plank, only pave the middle of the streets (in certain instances and times) -- not where cars park.

    Plank, allow for 'in-fill parking' in neighborhoods to get fewer cars parking on streets.

    Much could be done with revamp of priorities & policies for city's residents, not those zipping out of city at rush hour.

    Would love some blasted paint on roads too. Yellow lines, cross-walk visuals and such would make roads safer, esp for peds.

  24. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  25. Monk--

    Is that some kind of libertarian code?

  26. is that the hag Evelyn Neiser in the pic with her back to the camera?

    ugh I cant believe Theresa Smith hired her.

  27. The gentleman on the right-hand side of the photograph identified himself as a "troublemaker". So I like him!