No one seems to know where San Diego’s worst potholes are. A pothole is forgotten unless it’s driven over frequently, and then it is instinctively avoided. Drivers swerve into the next lane, then back again once the danger is behind them. At businesses located in front of potholes, employees hear the loud clunk of rims plowing into the unexpected holes. What they don’t hear are the drivers worrying how badly out of alignment their cars have been thrown. In that respect, potholes are a business.
Tim Witucki, 53, has worked as a mechanic at Service Specialists – Exclusively BMW, downtown, since 1976. I spoke with him last spring. “I’ve installed lots of shocks, and I can tell you that potholes not only hurt the shocks, but they hurt the wheels, probably more than the shocks. You can bend a wheel fairly easily by hitting a pothole. The shocks will take the punishment, but the wheels won’t. They’re usually aluminum or steel, and some of the high-end wheels cost a lot of money to replace.”
“Trucks are made a little more sturdy,” Witucki continued, “but I’ve known axle spindles to break from hitting potholes. Lightweight passenger cars aren’t designed to take that kind of hit. The suspension also suffers. We see bent control arms, struts, and even some of the paneling under the car gets torn up from the potholes.”
Witucki laughed when asked how badly San Diego’s potholes rated. “With all the construction going on around here, there are more than enough potholes. Especially downtown. There are more potholes downtown, going down 11th or 10th — just about any street there are a lot of potholes and cracks. Eastgate Mall in University City is a really bad street.”
One of Witucki’s coworkers commented that the worst thing about hitting a pothole is “it makes you spill coffee on your crotch.” Witucki went back to listing the potential damage potholes can inflict. “Internal panels get loose and start rattling. If it hits your tires just right, you can get tread separation. Rims. They really hurt a lot of things.”
Roland Luque, 48, is the public works superintendent of roadways, street division, for the City of San Diego, a position he had held for two and a half years when we talked last spring. “I’m in charge of the street and sidewalk system,” he told me. “We have five superintendents here in the street division and each with a major part of the division to oversee. In my division, I’m in charge of 102 people.” A native San Diegan, Luque had worked in road maintenance for 23 years.
Luque’s office was located in a complex of buildings at the Chollas Operations Yard. Across from Chollas Park near College Grove, the yard used to be the entry site for Chollas Landfill. Behind its entry gate on Caminito Chollas were road sign shops and maintenance vehicles of every description. Temporary buildings supplemented the permanent ones built in the early 1960s. Every aspect of building, maintaining, and repairing San Diego’s streets originated from this facility.
The city keeps a database of San Diego potholes. “We take all the requests from all the ways they come in,” said Luque. “It can come from citizens calling in, from another department, and even from our own folks out in the field. We use SAP software — it’s very powerful and tracks all the work that we do, whether it’s street maintenance, street repair, sidewalks, traffic signs, signals, street lights, street trees — all those types of functions are in the database.
“Through our own folks and the calls that notify us, we are constantly updated. In 2001, we patched 42,000 potholes, but those are the ones we knew about. How many more are out there, I don’t know.”
Repairing the simplest potholes doesn’t require any preparation, and they can often be filled in about 15 minutes. Larger potholes take longer, especially if workers must clear away debris or loose material, which may require a jackhammer. “If you’ve got a smaller divot in the surface, that’s pretty easy to fix, depending on where it is,” said Luque. “If it’s right in the drive lane, where a tire hits it, then, for us, that’s something that’s really important to fix. Then you have other areas of deteriorating asphalt, where there are a series of potholes or there’s been a water-pipe break, and that makes the asphalt ripple. Now you’re talking about a big pothole.”
Another factor in pothole repairs is the material used to surface the street. “For the most part, we have oil-based black asphalt,” Luque said. “Then we have concrete, which is gray or whitish in color. Many years ago, concrete was used extensively for a variety of reasons. It was used by the WPA [Works Progress Administration] under Roosevelt when they were expanding the infrastructure of a lot of our roads. It’s a lot stronger than asphalt and it lasts a lot longer, but there are also some negatives to concrete; particularly that it’s very expensive. Back then it was much more reasonable.
“The great thing about concrete is that its design life is 60 years. The average design life of an asphalt street is 20. Now the only time we use concrete is when the grade of the street is steep enough to where asphalt won’t work. But most of the neighborhoods that still have concrete were built between 1918 all the way through the mid-1930s. The downside is that concrete is not made to mess with. You get these ‘expansion joints,’ where the panel is broken up so it’s allowed to expand and contract with the weather, which causes the little tapping sensation you’ll get driving over it. But you don’t want to disturb it — and all of our utilities are in the street, which is a problem. We don’t overlay concrete streets with asphalt. What we do is replace panels, because we can’t take out a whole street of concrete and put it back again. When they replace utility lines on an asphalt street, they dig a big trench and put in the new pipes and bring the trench up and restore it. On an asphalt street, they’ll do maintenance on the street while they are there: they’ll get a slurry-seal coating or resurface it with a new layer of asphalt. But with concrete, there are no maintenance options. So in the older neighborhoods with concrete streets, they would fill the trench with concrete, and even though it’s a different color, that’s the way they’re going to leave it. But they’re supposed to leave it smooth enough so that the driving surface is decent.”