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Motorists on Chicago’s Austin Avenue dodged potholes, one of the effects of the harsh winter temperatures.

Charles Rex Arbogast • Associated Press,

Winter takes a costly toll on infrastructure

  • Article by: Jesse McKinley and RICHARD PÉREZ-PEÑA
  • New York Times
  • February 15, 2014 - 7:24 PM

– Century-old water mains here have ruptured behind City Hall, popped in residential areas and split under the city’s bar and restaurant district. The mayor says she has personally reported three breaks, while exhausted crews work 18-hour shifts to repair the damage.

In Detroit, a break in a 30-inch main flooded a southwest neighborhood on Tuesday, turning streets into streams and stalling cars in water above their hubcaps. As city workers pumped away the water, icebergs formed above the blacktop, locking some vehicles into place until the next thaw.

The exceptionally cold and stormy winter battering the Midwest, South and Northeast has forced cities and states to put road crews on double shifts and to step up purchases of asphalt, trying to keep up with an epidemic of potholes. They have also bought and spread so much salt that there is a shortage in some states.

Local and state governments still struggling to recover from the Great Recession are under new financial strain, with officials reporting increased spending on employee overtime, contractors and supplies.

Cities have no extra cash

“Cities still do not have a lot of cash available, so this particular storm season is having a really severe impact on their budgets,” said James Brooks, a director for community development at the National League of Cities. “We’ve also had many years of disinvestment in things like roads, bridges, water and sewer systems, which makes them more vulnerable.”

Northern regions tend to have older, more brittle pipes and bridges, while areas farther south tend to be ill-equipped for snowdrifts and subfreezing temperatures that can snarl traffic and buckle pavement. Officials around the country said the costs would be steep, but many said they would not worry about tabulating them until the crisis was over.

“We don’t ask those questions, but we do keep receipts,” said Gov. Pat McCrory of North Carolina. He expects to tap into the state’s emergency fund to pay for storm response.

Whoever is paying, the repair work will be extensive and expensive.

Potholes, water mains, salt

In Baltimore, 353 water mains ruptured in January, about one-third as many as in all of 2013. South Carolina officials estimated that a single weather system last month drained $2 million from the state’s budget. A 137-year-old main that popped in Manhattan turned some of the toniest streets into a temporary Venice, and a break in Boston’s Chinatown nearly swallowed a public works truck.

In Chicago, city crews are filling potholes at double the rate of last year yet drivers are still doing what look like drunken swerves to avoid yawning gaps in the streets.

Pennsylvania has used road salt at a pace 24 percent ahead of normal, an additional cost of more than $8 million. Maine’s Department of Transportation ordinarily spends about $15.7 million a year clearing roads of snow, but “right now we’re already up to $21.8 million,” said Ted Talbot, a department spokesman. “If it continues along this line, we’d have to curb some spring maintenance, like tree trimming, some signage.”

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