Tired of rumbling over potholes on her way to work, Allison Schaumburg of north Minneapolis began taking a different route just to avoid them.
“I’m sure if a police officer was behind me they would think I’m drunk, because I’m weaving around and around” trying to avoid the craters on 2nd Street, she said. “It’s absolutely insane.”
As Minneapolis faces an explosion of demands to repair pockmarked roads after a harsh winter, a Star Tribune analysis of more than 17,000 requests to fill potholes over the last five years shows wide disparities among different areas of the city.
The analysis found that Minneapolis reported it had addressed pothole repair requests made to the city’s 311 hot line nearly twice as fast in its wealthiest areas in the south — where it received the most calls from citizens — as it did in the heavily traveled Downtown West neighborhood.
Records show that Minneapolis also reported resolving pothole complaints much more slowly in lower-income areas in the north and northeast parts of the city, where residents made fewer calls.
“I’m startled and I’m appalled. … I can tell you that my sense is there are not fewer potholes in north Minneapolis than other places,” said Council Member Blong Yang, who represents the North Side.
Public-works officials said they deploy the same resources to each part of the city, and they attribute the differences to varying practices among street-repair crews in filing paperwork showing which potholes they filled. Some crews, for example, wait to report pothole repairs in batches.
The crews are often familiar with where repairs are needed “and try to approach it a little more systematically and strategically. We don’t want to be jumping around on 311 calls,” said Mike Kennedy, the city’s director of transportation maintenance and repair.
Kennedy said he doesn’t know why residents in the southwest and Lake Nokomis areas of the city call in with more complaints than anywhere else, but he doesn’t believe their streets have more potholes than other parts of the city.
Records from 311 reports were never meant to be analyzed for repair rates, the city said. A request can be closed for reasons other than fixing the pothole, such as passing it on to the county if a pothole is on a county road or determining that the area of the pothole is already scheduled for broader street repair work that year, officials said. Crews also fix potholes that do not originate from a 311 request, but the city does not keep track of those repairs.
Even so, the city is taking a second look at its methods.
Responding to the Star Tribune’s findings, public works director Steve Kotke said his department will now look at standardizing the way crews report fixing potholes.
More repair money
Cities throughout Minnesota are scrambling to keep up with pothole repair and how to pay for the surge.
This winter’s high number of subzero days and constant snowfall stymied repair crews, sometimes sending them back to potholes they had filled days earlier. Auto repair shops say they are seeing an unusual increase in business as cars roll in with punctured tires, bent rims, and damaged shocks and suspensions.
Potholes form when water seeps into cracks in the road, expanding in freezing temperatures, then contracting as temperatures thaw. Those areas crumble even more as cars repeatedly bounce over them. Officials said that because older pavement is more prone to potholes, the city has been resurfacing and sealing more roads so that they are less likely to break down in winter.
On Tuesday, the Minneapolis City Council’s Transportation and Public Works Committee approved an extra $1 million for pothole repair, a day after St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman lamented the damage done by potholes in his annual State of the City address. Legislators also have considered extra funding for cities to repair roads.
Mayor Betsy Hodges said the additional funds in Minneapolis will double and in some cases triple the city’s pothole repair efforts, paying for more repair crews and a pothole patching contractor. The city now sends one repair crew to a southern district, one to a district spanning the north and northeast areas, and several more downtown.
In St. Paul, where it takes an average of 20 days for the city to address a request to fill a pothole, 1,926 complaints flooded in last year with descriptions like “insane potholes,” “pothole causing major axle-busting” and “huge craters.” It was a fivefold increase from 2012.
One motorist had to be towed out of potholes at Grand Avenue and S. Victoria Street; another reported a rift 8 feet long at Old Kellogg Boulevard and Summit Avenue.
In Minneapolis one morning last month, a crew of three street workers labored in the West Phillips neighborhood to make “cold patches” — quick, temporary repairs done in colder weather by filling holes with asphalt until more permanent repairs can be made later.
The workers often filled the holes in seconds, sweeping and knocking out ice and pebbles, shoveling one or two scoops of asphalt into the hole, smoothing them over and riding on to the next one. Crew member Mike Flaherty said they take a sheet of 311 reports and manually mark the ones they have done before turning them in.
Looking at the latest pothole, he joked: “I love every one of them.”
The number of requests to fill potholes jumped from 1,084 in 2012, a particularly mild winter, to 3,700 last year, and the average time it took the city to resolve those complaints doubled to 22 days.
In the southwest part of the city and in neighborhoods near Lake Nokomis, Minneapolis reported taking an average of 16 days to address 5,042 requests to fix potholes.
Judith Layer, who lives in the Linden Hills neighborhood, said that repair crews fixed three potholes she reported to 311 within a week last year and that the area receives “really great service.” Neighbors are “very involved … they are invested,” Layer said.
Minneapolis urges citizens to report potholes to 311 online, telling them to fill out a form — “and the city will address your concern.” Don Stickney, the city’s 311 director, touted the 311 system in an article in Governing magazine last month, saying that it feeds data to department heads and elected officials about what’s going on.
Still, Kennedy said, “We are not complaint driven. We are complaint responsive. We take care of the worst first.”
Quickest rate? Windom
Nearly every neighborhood south of Lake Street had better-than-average times to address pothole requests, while in neighborhoods in the city’s northeast and near north sections, citizens logged far fewer complaints and repairs took 27 and 28 days, respectively. It also took nearly a month in the North Loop and Downtown West neighborhoods.
Records show that it took a week to report closing a pothole request in Windom in the southwestern part of the city, compared with five weeks in the Harrison neighborhood on the North Side.
Yet differences did not always correlate with income. It took 20 days on average to resolve pothole complaints in the University, Powderhorn and Longfellow communities — all of which have lower median incomes than the Calhoun-Isles region, where it took 23. Powderhorn experienced faster times than similar low-income regions but also called in 2,204 complaints — far more than most other parts of the city. The Phillips area, which has the city’s lowest median income, also registered the fewest pothole complaints and had a lower-than-average time for pothole complaints to be resolved: 25 days.
The city fielded another 650 requests to fix potholes in the first 10 weeks of this year, nearly triple what it received for the same period in 2013.
Many roads in disrepair never show up in city records, because residents don’t complain about them — like Michelle Moses, whose drive to work in northeast Minneapolis is covered with potholes so jarring that they knocked her wheels out of alignment.
“I just figured the city would know about them,” she said.