Quantity vs. Quality: How are we patching our potholes?

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In the battle on potholes, Del City Councilman Floyd Eason can’t help but feel like he’s fighting a war of attrition.

“Once a week, we were patching a hole at this intersection,” Eason  said, as he walked along Sunnylane Rd. near Interstate 40. “That's the big problem. We have to repair it over and over.”

In Del City, it can feel like a continual failure.

No matter how often road crews attack with their shovels and asphalt mixes, the potholes always seem to counter - stronger, deeper and bumpier than before.

And, at a time when the belt is as tight as ever, Eason can’t help but wonder if the money of the people he represents is well spent.

“That's where all the cost comes in with all the repair,” he said. “It's a continual process.”

Costly problem

Potholes are proving to be an expensive problem in Oklahoma and across the country.

According to TRIP, a national transportation research group, 30 percent of Oklahoma’s major roads are in poor condition.

Driving on those roads cost each Oklahoman an extra $763 on average every year, when you factor in repairs and other operating costs.

“They can be very expensive and extensive repairs,” said Jeff Beck, who owns Beck’s Garage in Oklahoma City. “Road damage can range anywhere from a couple hundred dollars to a couple thousand dollars, depending on the hit.”

Wheels, suspensions and steering gears can all be torn apart by a big enough bump in the road.

Beck has seen bent A-frames, A-arms and struts, too.

The pothole problem doesn’t seem to be vanishing any time soon either.

TRIP estimates that the country needs to spend an extra $32 million a year to improve America’s road conditions.

And, locally, TRIP reports vehicle travel on Oklahoma’s highways was up 45 percent between 1990-2013, during which the state’s population jumped 21 percent.

For Earl Rooms, the pavement manager at Tinker Sport Services, the numbers add up to a potential disaster.

“Potholes is always an ongoing problem,” he said. “Anytime it rains or snows, potholes develop, and the product we've been using has not been sufficient to keep us from repairing them on a yearly basis and sometimes on a monthly basis.”

Like Eason, he’s frustrated by the more traditional products he’s had access to.

But, now, Eason and Rooms both think they have finally found a longer-term solution that will be money better spent.

It’s called DOT Pothole Filler.

Based in the Dallas area, inventor Greg Cole has spent more than 15 years developing and marketing a product he said is different than anything else on the market.

Namely, it lasts.

An alternative solution

Bill Harris, who helps sell DOT across the country, carries “failures” in the back seat of his car, examples of pavement patches that “didn’t work right.”

They are thin and full of holes.

But, then, he holds up a compact cube of pavement, a cross-section, he said, of asphalt held together with the product he sells.

“You can't get water in here,” he said. “And, if you can't get water in here, you don't have the contraction when it warms up. Not only is it the key, it's the difference between us and everyone else.”

DOT is a blend of asphalt and polymers, according to the company’s website, blended together to create a liquid, rubberized pothole filler.

Because it is a liquid, Harris said, it can seep into all the nooks and crannies of the pavement for a stronger bond.

Harris showed NewsChannel 4 a metro parking lot where he said DOT was installed at least a decade ago.

He pointed out how the pavement is crumbling alongside the still-solid repairs.

Eason has demoed the product.

And, he’s sold.

“We couldn't make anything stay in there before,” he said, motioning to a patch of rich black asphalt. “This has been in three weeks, and it looks like the day we patched it.”

So, if there is a pothole filler out there that claims to last for years, why aren’t more Oklahoma municipalities using it?

One factor could be the cost.

Cost comparison

DOT pothole filler costs between $20-30 a gallon, depending on how much you buy, which is about 100 times more expensive than the typical hot mix asphalt most municipalities buy.

Plus, renting a special machine to apply DOT can cost up to $3,000 for 30 days, though there are discounts tied to the amount of filler a municipality can buy.

NewsChannel 4 asked the municipalities in the metro area what they used to patch their roads and how much they cost.

Most used an asphalt hot mix almost all of the time, which runs around $50 a ton.

Sometimes, but much more rarely, municipalities said they will use a more durable cold patch which can run closer to $100 a ton.

Larry Patrick, executive director of the Oklahoma Asphalt Paving Association, estimates it takes 50-100 pounds of asphalt to fill a pothole, depending on its size.

“So, that [asphalt is] a pretty cheap fix, if you really look at it over time,” Patrick said. “With the money shortage that's going on, cities are really trying to reach out and find something that will temporarily get traffic moving again.”

In other words, Patrick said, it’s not the materials cities are using that are the problem.

It’s the way those materials are being used.

“It's just a temporary fix to a long-term problem,” he said. “You don't want to throw the money into that hole and then be back a year later fixing it. You want to be able to patch that and know it's solid and it's going to last.”

Municipalities will only get the most for their money, he said, if crews are getting down to where the problem really is, otherwise the pothole will reoccur.

And, if pothole fixes are only supposed to be temporary, he’s worried about doling out extra dough for a more expensive fix.

“It's a real risk,” he said. "And, not only do you have the cost of material, but you have the cost of that crew going out to patch it that you throw in the equation, it's the equipment that they're using.”

Local Patching Materials

Permanent solutions

Terri Angier, a spokeswoman for the Oklahoma Department of Transportation, said balancing material costs and construction schedules can be tricky.

“Trust me, with all the budget constraints we've had, we don't want to go ahead and do something again that doesn't need to be done,” she said. “But, at the same time, you don't want to go spend a lot of money on a pavement condition where you know that you're going to be fixing it soon.”

Angier said a majority of the $4 million the state spent on pothole repairs last year was for labor and traffic control.

Just $600,000 of that budget was spent on materials.

“They try to really make sure they stretch the dollar as much as they can and not throw money into something that we may have to dig up in a few months to do a major reconstruction project,” she said.

And, though Angier acknowledges ODOT is frustrated by having to fill the same spots over and over again, she said when the money is tight, more permanent solutions have to wait.

For decades, she said, the state’s funding for ODOT has remained flat.

“The permanent solution is repaving, reconstructing the entire pavement,” she said.

But, often the projects to reconstruct that pavement are years away, so something must be temporarily put in the pothole.

“We know the average driver won't tolerate a pothole or a bump for more than two days, let alone two years,” she said. “If there is a small hole in your roof, you don't let it sit there for six months before you replace the whole roof. You still have to fix the little hole to keep the rain from coming through or the leaks before you can replace the whole roof.”

"Worth the money"

Eason said he is committed to DOT Pothole Filler, despite its higher upfront costs.

When he considers the cost of repeat labor and materials, he sees the more expensive DOT as a bargain.

“Ultimately, it will save money on payroll and downtime for the streets,” he said. “So, I see it as a good investment for the city.”

Indeed, the inventor of DOT acknowledges that his product is not cheaper initially.

But, Cole said the costs come down when you consider each time road crews have to re-patch a spot

That logic has Eason convinced.

“Everyone is resistant to spending money,” Eason said “I think, if you look at the long-term investment, then it becomes practical to spend the money up front and the savings will realize themselves over time.”