Winter weather damaging local roads

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Nick Crow
Saturday, February 8, 2014

JANESVILLE — Winter weather this season is wreaking havoc on area roads, causing problems for public works departments.

Local municipalities have had to compete with below zero temperatures, frequent snowfalls and blowing and drifting snow. The combination of factors has contributed to the rumble strip feeling many drive encounter on roadways this winter.

So what exactly is happening to the roads that is transmitting every road wrinkle to a driver's backside? Local road experts offered some explanations.

John Whitcomb, operations director for the Janesville Public Works Department, said that winters where we experience a lot of precipitation and very cold temperatures cause joints and cracks in the pavement to heave and become more pronounced. This is particularly true when asphalt is placed over old concrete streets, he said.

“Salt does contribute to pavement deterioration as it exacerbates the freeze/thaw action in joints and cracks the pavement,” Whitcomb said.

Jamie Grainger, roadway maintenance engineer for the Wisconsin Department of Transportation, said that many state roadways are hurt by freeze/thaw because the more that happens the more moisture penetrates the roadbed base and soils beneath.

“We have had an abnormal number of winter events this season and therefore an increased number of times salt has been applied to the roadways,” Grainger said. “Each time a road is salted and the snow is melted, some water goes into those cracks and through the shoulder gravel. The extreme cold has caused that trapped water to refreeze more often than it would in a normal year, and for the frost depth to go deeper.”

He said that he expects a higher than average number of potholes this spring because of the above average amount of frost heave this winter.

“Spring is also the time that we see an increased occurrence of potholes,” Grainger said. “The voids left in the road base and soil that used to be filled with ice are now empty, and when heavy vehicles drive on the roadway it compacts the voids and deflects the asphalt surface. This movement of the asphalt surface causes it to break up and form potholes.”

Rock County Director of Public Works Ben Coopman said that a wet fall combined with a harsh winter have left many county roads with a potentially serious pothole problem in the spring.

“Right now the frost is deep,” Coopman said. “It's at least four and a half feet deep. It's highly likely the pothole situation is going to be worse than usual.”

Walworth County Public Works Superintendent Larry Price echoed that sentiment for his county.

“It has been hard on the county,” Price said. “Last Sunday was the first day where we haven't plowed since Dec. 8. Holidays, weekends, whatever. Even days where there wasn't snow we have had drifting.”

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