Potholes are no easy fix

City of Brookings photo: The streets in Brookings have taken a beating this winter with all the snow and rain. Potholes abound and so do boils, such as the one pictured here on Teresa Avenue, said Matt Bartley, superintendent of the Brookings Street Department. Repairs are being hampered by the cold, rainy spring weather, he said. To report problems with streets, call the Street Department at 692-2016.

Harsh winter weather has contributed to plethora of road problems in city

BROOKINGS – If you thought there were more potholes this year, you’re right, according to Matt Bartley, superintendent of the City of Brookings Street Department.

The reason is due to the freeze/thaw cycle and the high moisture content in the soil, which is also making it difficult to get the problem solved, he added.

“A road is only as good as its base. If the base falls apart underneath it, your road’ll fall apart,” Bartley said.

His crew has been filling in the potholes – which is a temporary fix – but they are also fighting what he calls boils, which are patches of rough road that are more prevalent this year, too.

“The potholes are an annoyance. The boils are actually big problems,” Bartley said.

The bad part is there’s not much they can do until the soil dries out, and for the boils, it’s a complicated fix, he said.

“With the moisture level, we really can’t fix them at this moment,” Bartley said. “We do have to wait to get Mother Nature to help us out a little bit and help us get some sunshine. I’d even take a little wind just to get that all dried out.”

Potholes, boils and causes

“A pothole will typically start from above and a boil … will start from below and really push everything up and out,” Bartley said.

The root cause is the same for both.

“The amount of moisture, the freeze/thaw cycles, that all creates havoc on our roadways,” he said.

Cold weather constricts the asphalt and concrete, making cracks more pronounced in winter than in summer, he said.

“It might be a half-inch wide in June, but it might be 2-3 inches wide in January,” Bartley said.

Potholes form when moisture gets into the cracks in the asphalt and concrete, Bartley explained.

“If you just see a straight hole, that would be more geared towards a freeze/thaw cycle where the water sat in the top of the hole and froze. When it freezes, it gets into the cracks and pops the asphalt open or the concrete open,” Bartley said.

Boils are more complicated and harder to fix, he said.

Boils are caused when the ground water forces itself upward and the moisture gets into the base material of the road.

“Unfortunately, Brookings has such a high groundwater table and not as great of base material with a lot of clay around here. When the clay gets all that moisture, it swells and doesn’t release it very easily. It takes time and the only way for it to release is to come up,” Bartley said.

“It almost inverts the pavement system above it,” he said. “It pushes the rock and the asphalt down into the clay and into the base material and becomes a mushy hole at that point. … Instead of sinking down, it pushes up.”

Usually not as deep as a pothole, boils can still make driving a vehicle over them rough because the material can shift under the wheels.

Boils cover more area, too.

“Some of these are 25 by 100 or 200 feet long. Your typical pothole is only gonna be 12 by 12, something like that. And that’s actually pretty large,” Bartley said.

With the ground this saturated, the boils can continue to form, he added.

Other factors

Snow and rain aren’t the only moisture creators.

“Not only Mother Nature’s moisture, but sump pumps have been turned back out into the streets, into the gutter systems. Those will also erode away road surfaces and that tends to be more along the curb line,” Bartley said.

The softer roads are easier to break up, especially by heavy vehicles. 

“We don’t have load limits in town like the county does for highways and bridges,” Bartley said. “Because heavy trucks, heavy equipment, even larger pickups carry a lot of weight and when you have that much moisture underneath, it gives. There’s a point where something has to move.”

Using the roads exacerbates the damage. The public can help by avoiding bad spots as much as possible, for the sake of the road and their own safety.

“If you see orange cones, there’s a reason they’re there right now,” Bartley said. “There are situations where it is soft material and vehicles could get stuck or have minor damage if they weren’t aware of it being there.

“If you do see orange cones, be cautious around that area in general because it could mean that there is other potential problem spots close to that that just hasn’t formed yet,” he said.


Fixing potholes and fixing boils aren’t the same.

“They are kind of two different animals and you have to fix them in different ways,” Bartley said.

Potholes are easier to fix, but the process is more drawn out.

The time to fill the potholes is wintertime when they are fully open, but there was a problem.

“We weren’t able to do that this winter because we never got a break from any moisture. The cracks have to be dried out or the rubber material won’t hold,” Bartley said.

His crews have been filling what they can, but they’ve been using cold mix, also known as winter mix.

“The asphalt plant is not up and running yet here in town, so we haven’t been able to actually get some hot mix,” Bartley said. “We’ve been using (the cold mix) as more of a temporary solution just to try to alleviate what drivers feel along the road.

“But all those spots that we put that cold mix in, we will have to go back and mill that section out, put regular hot asphalt back in there to actually fix the problem,” Bartley explained the two-step process.

Boils must be fixed from the bottom up.

“You scrape the roadway off and then you scrape out the base material underneath,” Bartley said. “How deep you have to go depends on the material you’re taking out and how wet it is.”

Once all the damaged material is gone and you get down to solid ground, you can build the roadway back up, he said.

To finish all that, his department is going to need some help, since they are set up to do maintenance work and these jobs are a little beyond that scope. 

“I don’t want to Band-Aid fix ‘em because they’ll just come back,” Bartley said, adding those kinds of fixes just waste money.

The Street Department will be coordinating with the city’s Engineering Department on the maintenance overlay projects which are handled by “contractors, like Bowes Construction to help us,” Bartley said.

“We will prep the area, we will get it ready for them, but since we don’t have a paver, then we would rely on them to come and help pave that area so that we get a proper fix,” Bartley said.

They need help

The Street Department needs some help from the public. 

Bartley wants folks to call 692-2016 to report potholes, boils and other roadway maintenance, especially as he expects these problem spots to keep cropping up.

“We fix what we find, but it does help if people let us know when there’s something there, as well,” Bartley said.

His office creates a service request log from every report they get so they can assess each problem and figure out how it needs to be fixed.

“This is a bad spring, please be patient. We are out trying as best we can,” Bartley said.

Contact Jodelle Greiner at [email protected]


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