Hebert: The springtime of our discontentWritten by Guest Author | | GuestAuthor@toledofreepress.com
Finally springtime is at our doorstep — but don’t let it fool you. For this delightful season of crocuses in our gardens brings with it the dreaded season of craters on our roadways. Yes, I’m talking potholes, the perennial plague of pockmarks on the pavement spawned by the wear of traffic and the wrath of winter’s crushing freeze-thaw cycle. And ready or not, they’re here.
Bump-bump-thump-whap-bang-thud-kerunck! That’s what it was like driving down a stretch of the Anthony Wayne Trail last week. And there’s little escape from it. It’s pervasive. Detroit Avenue and Monroe Street. Jackman and Douglas roads. I-475 and Front Street. All streets now feel like a relief map of the Andes Mountains, offering big thrills for drivers and big bills from the scores of tire and alignment shops who repair our tires, wheels, shocks, axles, front ends, suspensions and brake systems that fall prey to this annual failure of road construction.
So I ask: Why? Seriously, do we really have to put up with this lunar landscape that is gouged into our roadways every spring? Is this our fate? Our karma for some unknown sin we committed against mankind? Did our ancestors also contend with this annual insult or is this a recent development on the bumpy road of civilization?
Apparently it is nothing new. Using my trusty Google search box and a few minutes between TV shows, I was able to find a plethora of stories from decades ago about this springtime of our discontent. I confirmed it, in black and white. We are not the first generation to curse the roads we drive on. It appears that our parents, grandparents, great-grandparents and most everyone on our DNA chain over the past century have uttered blasphemous oaths at these voids and potholes, chuckholes and craters, kettles and cave-ins.
They indeed have been a long and ubiquitous part of the driving experience from Tacoma to Toledo, the first one likely surfacing somewhere on Monroe Street shortly after the city’s first delivery truck, owned by Lamson’s department store, took to the muddy streets, splashing people on the sidewalks back in 1899. A few years and a few thousand cars later, the potholes became so bad that a local chapter of the national “Chuckhole Club” was formed, which invited groups of regular folks to get together for pothole-filling parties. It was a bring-your-own-shovel affair and the clubs supplied the buckets of gravel. By 1910, they even had a club insignia featuring a depiction of a shovel and a bucket.
A review of local historical records reveals that in Toledo, the early pothole plague was also frequently tackled by disgruntled vigilantes who took matters into their own hands and filled the holes without asking for city help. Imagine that. It surely must have been a different time and mindset. In 1912, Spokane, Washington, was so plagued by holes in the highways that the governor declared one day in April 1912 as “Good Roads Day,” and urged: “If you own an auto, climb into it with a pair of overhauls on April 12th and ride out into the country and when you get to that chuckhole or rut you cussed out the last time you ran into it, fill it up and level it over. If you can afford to own a car, you can afford to do this.”
One can only wonder what type of beating a politician would take this day and age if this “fix-it-your-own-damned-self” solution were to be decreed or even suggested again?
One hundred years later, though, we do still employ the chuckhole club technique as the primary quick-fix solution, only now we pay city and state street crews to do the dirty work as opposed to setting up volunteer brigades. But the fact remains: the basic technology for pothole repair really hasn’t changed dramatically over the last century. It’s a sort of “whack-a-mole” solution that defies what should be the sensibility of (oxymoron alert) responsible government. C’mon, let’s stop the madness. With today’s great technology, it would seem that we could fix this problem once and for all. And at the risk of being arrested by the cliché police, I’ll dare to say it: We can send a man to the moon, so why can’t we build a road that doesn’t fall apart in the winter?
Perhaps it’s not really viewed as the problem it really is. You see it comes and goes. We gripe and groan, but then by fall, the problem is paved over (pun intended) and then another crisis intervenes and the furor dies down. Policymakers know this and easily brush it aside when it’s no longer front page news.
Time to change that.
I think everyone needs to frame this as more than just a seasonal nuisance or mere inconvenience. First and foremost, the situation is dangerous. Potholes are another one of nature’s ways of trying to kill us. Drivers that dodge or run into the big potholes too often lose control or slam into other cars. And those flying chunks of concrete or asphalt sent airborne by the tires of an 18-wheeler can deliver more than a mere wet spot in your shorts when they hit your windshield.
And then let’s talk money. That reason alone is why drivers all across America should surround their state capitols with pitchforks and signs demanding a solution. Incessant road resurfacing and rebuilding is one of the biggest money sucks in government and from our wallets. We’re not talking millions of dollars. We’re talking billions. Billions, with a “B.”
Every year in just Ohio, the state highway folks at ODOT (Ohio Department of Transportation) shell out well over $2 billion on a wide variety of projects. Lots of that money has to be spent to resurface or replace the pocked pavement that too often crumbles away like week-old toast. It’s a costly scenario that is repeated every year at the city and county levels. And while I fully understand there is a lot to do at ODOT and the agency is charged with taking care of millions of “lane miles” of highway, are any of those billions of dollars in the budget being spent to specifically study and prevent the problem of potholes on our roadways?
Are we really looking for long-term answers and solutions? How many engineers are tasked with finding this elusive Holy Grail of surface material to end this pestilence of potholes? It would be a solution that could save billions of dollars and thousands of lives. Where is the Bill Gates or Stephen Hawking of road construction? We need them desperately, for whatever money is spent to find the ultimate answer may be the best public investment in years. Ironically, when Ohio’s state highway department was started back in 1905, they had four employees, and their only mission was only to study the state roadways and the science of road construction. The annual budget was $10,000. As I drive down the Anthony Wayne Trail, dodging the divots and the dips, I wonder aloud if we are spending even that much today.
In the meantime, look out, big pothole on your left!
Lou Hebert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.