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March 16, 2014

Hole lot of trouble: PennDOT tests new system for fixes

— With some weather watchers calling winter 2013-14 the harshest in two decades, motorists are already fretting about potholes.

But some areas of the state are making long-lasting pothole repairs using a hot patch system weeks before the asphalt batch plants open in this area.

To the west in Allegheny County they are calling it “The Pothole Killer.”

The machine and oil-based compound developed by a private company allows PennDOT crews to make repairs that last longer than the cold patch method traditionally used at this time of year.

“Cold patch is a temporary fill. Sometimes the cold patch material can pop out after a few days or a few hours,” said Steve Cowan, public information officer for PennDOT District 11 in Allegheny County. “ ‘The Pothole Killer’ cures that.”

Cowan stopped short of terming ‘The Pothole Killer’ as a permanent answer, but it’s a much better solution, he said.

The machinery and formula used by Patch Management, a 15-year-old company from Fairless Hills, outside of Philadelphia, blasts in a heated oil-based formula followed by a top coat of aggregate. The pothole is smoothed out and the truck and crew move on. Traffic can immediately drive over the repair.

The key, said transportation officials from the region, is the proprietary formula that the company has developed to keep the oil-based mixture warm and pliable.

“We do have spray patchers towed behind the truck, but somebody walks along and manually sprays it in,” said Jeff Mitchell, PennDOT District 9 maintenance manager.

The problem is local Penn-DOT maintenance units do not have access to the hot asphalt until mid to late April when plants such as Quaker Sales, HRI and New Enterprise Stone and Lime open for production.

The traditional hot asphalt does not stay pliable until it can be transported from the plant to the highway until the temperatures warm up.

The pothole blaster was brought to Allegheny County only in  recent days because it just was not available, due to heavy demand elsewhere, Cowan said.

“We were unable to get the machine for quite some time.” he said. “We basically got use of it last Monday.”

Richard Kirkpatrick, Penn-DOT spokesman from Harrisburg, said the cost is still being evaluated.

The process has been used to some degree in 12 counties this year and the department has spent $2.4 million.

“It varies across the state. We try to make decisions where it makes sense,” he said. “When we can get the materials, we do it in house.”

Meanwhile, ‘The Pothole Killer’ may not be coming to Cambria and Somerset counties anytime soon, but highway officials already have crews out doing all possible with traditional methods.

“I expect this year to be worse than last year,” said Dennis Mehora, head of the Cambria maintenance unit. “With the real hard freezes and the thaw cycles we’re going to see more this year than we’ve probably seen since the early 1990s.”

Somerset County maintenance unit supervisor Joe Kelemen said it will be a couple of weeks until the potholes really start appearing.

“I don’t believe the frost is completely out of the ground,” he said. “March is a transition month between warm and cold, so we have yet to see how things will be.”

Mehora and Kelemen said as with winter maintenance, pothole repair is by priority. The primary highways, routes 219, 22, 56 and others, get the attention first.

But efforts will be made to get to pothole repairs, wherever they are needed, as soon as possible.

Mehora is asking Cambria residents to be patient.

“They’re yet to come, but from what we’ve seen we’re going to have a bumper crop,” Mehora said.

 

Kathy Mellott covers transportation issues for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/ kathymellottd.

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