If you think the Flathead Valley’s roads seem more like pothole-filled obstacle courses this year than last, it’s not just your winter-weary imagination.
According to Dave Prunty, Flathead County’s public works director, this winter has been especially tough on the Flathead’s thoroughfares because of the temperature variations and precipitation.
“It looks like it’s going to be an awful good year” for bad potholes, Prunty said.
There has been plenty of snowfall this winter, which in turn has melted off in periods of warm weather. This causes water to seep into the roadways, Prunty said, and once the cold weather returns, the water expands as it freezes. Then, when the warm weather cycles through again, the concrete and asphalt expand, causing more havoc.
“Water is a road’s enemy, whether it’s a paved road or a gravel road,” Prunty said.
Traffic and age also play roles in a roadway’s deterioration, he said. Weather is perhaps the biggest foe in the battle against pocked streets, since road crews cannot permanently fix the holes in the cold and snow.
During the winter months, potholes are filled with an asphalt-like mix, referred to as a cold mix. Prunty said it is not hot like regular asphalt and it usually fills in on top of existing moisture.
Ideally, crews would cut a square around a pothole, let it dry, and then fill it with hot asphalt. But those solutions won’t likely come until the spring, when the weather is more cooperative.
“Cold mix is a temporary Band-Aid,” Prunty said.
Kalispell city crews have also been working on filling potholes with the cold-mix asphalt. Some repeat offenders, such as those found at the intersection of 11th Street and U.S. Highway 93, have received multiple treatments.
Prunty said the cities and the county work independently of each other when it comes to patching up the roads, unlike their collaborative efforts with snow removal.
Efforts to discuss pothole strategy with Kalispell officials were unsuccessful.
At the county level, Prunty said road crews communicate with each other to identify the problem areas, which, at this point, seem to be everywhere.
“They’re all over the place. I’m not quite sure if you can pick one spot that’s higher frequency than another,” he said.
County crews have focused a lot of energy on filling the pockmarks in Evergreen, the county’s biggest urban area, he said. Whitefish Stage also has some frame-rattling sections, which road crews have patched several times.
Many of the cities’ urban areas are rough as well. Some of the valley’s highways are also beginning to show wear and tear, Prunty said, but state crews try to fix them up quickly due to the dangers of hitting a pothole traveling at highway speeds.
As far as a pothole-fixing hierarchy, Prunty said it usually comes down to knowing where the worst stretches are and organizing day crews to put a temporary fix on them.
“We try and get to as many of them as we can,” Prunty said.
The county also tries to prioritize dangerous potholes, especially those that cause drivers to swerve or otherwise divert from their lane of traffic, he said. Crews tend to the potholes when they’re not on snow-removal duty.
While hitting a pothole dead-on can be loud and jarring for the driver, it can also be taxing on a vehicle. The uneven roads threaten flat tires and skewed alignment, and Prunty said drivers are financially responsible for any damage to their vehicles.
Potholes, like loose gravel on a road, are perils drivers must take in stride.
“They’re road hazards,” Prunty said. “If a tire kicks up a rock off the road and cracks your windshield, that’s not the county road department’s fault.”
But Prunty also said he understands drivers’ frustrations with the pitted roads. Anyone wanting to report a particularly rough stretch of road is encouraged to contact the Flathead County Roads and Bridges Department at 758-5790, Prunty said.
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