McGinn on the job: Potholes get attention

In Seattle, there may be a war on cars, but there is a war on potholes too, and it's something of a quagmire.

Crosscut archive image.

A crew works on fixing a Seattle street.

In Seattle, there may be a war on cars, but there is a war on potholes too, and it's something of a quagmire.

Mayor Mike McGinn seems to be settling into his job. He's lost weight, seems calmer, a little less eager to throw elbows as if he's in a game of pick-up basketball. One sign that he's learning what people want from a mayor: he's got religion on pothole politics.

Potholes are how Seattleites judge effectiveness. Can the mayor fix 'em? Greg Nickel's launched the war with his "Pothole Rangers" and personally donned a helmet and went on patrol. Paul Schell reputedly made political points by becoming a pothole-repair vigilante. A mayor who can't smooth the streets is in trouble. And it's not just about cars: potholes can injure pedestrians and cyclists too. (It's also not solely about potholes; as Nickels discovered, lack of salt can break you too.)

One thing is clear: Seattle's potholes are blooming. In a press conference Tuesday, McGinn stated that there are nearly something like three-times more potholes this winter than last, mostly because of rain and snow and ice, according to Seattle Department of Transportation supervisors. The freeze-thaw cycle can play havoc with the streets, and Seattle is not the only Washington city seeing a bumper crop of potholes. Spokane is dealing with an unprecedented proliferation as well.

The War of Potholes is gaining new visibility. McGinn unveiled the SDOT's new pothole tracking website that allows people to see where the holes are, what's been fixed, what's currently being fixed, and how big the repair jobs are. You can also report potholes, and track them by neighborhood.

Little colored dots cover the street grid of Pothole City and give you an idea of the foe we face: an insurgency that's everywhere. I've noticed driving around that the pothole problem seems reasonably egalitarian: streets in some of the most pricey neighborhoods are as bad as streets in poor neighborhoods. No one is exempt from failing infrastructure. 

According to SDOT, in January 2010, 1,350 potholes were filled for the entire month. This year, 1,365 were repaired in just one week (Jan. 24-30). The city has had to pick up the pothole pace, but the numbers are pretty overwhelming. The city has shifted pothole filling techniques, using a new method that, they hope, will make the repairs last longer (you can see from the pothole map that even some of the city's potholes have potholes!).

But the repairs take a little more time, and with so many more holes appearing, the Pothole Rangers have not be able to consistently make the mayor's target of fixing them within 72 hours. According to SDOT, this winter they are "averaging a response time of seven to eight working days for citizen reports even with nine crews responding. We expect to return to our targeted three-day response time by mid- to late-February."

Winter is especially rough because repairs are hard to make when the street is wet, plus the weather, plus wear-and-tear, plus aging asphalt....crews will be able to work faster and more successfully when we dry out a bit. 

In terms of politics, the mayor seems consistent. He likes a good surface option over holes in the ground. Maybe he sees the tunnel as a giant pothole. One he stands ready to fix.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.