Freeze could make rides bumpier
Experts say potholes likely to worsen after area roads iced over
David Isaac, 44, compares the commute to and from his Spring Branch home to a game of Whacka-Mole in which his small pickup is the mallet. It is a game he would rather not play.
“One pothole gets fixed and another takes its place,” Isaac said, adding that street crevices, depressions, disturbed slabs and potholes can be teeth-rattling reminders of how bad some Houston roads can be.
While not a crisis, the cold snap is all but certain to open a few more holes, according to pavement experts. The most likely places for problems to occur is where issues already exist — they will just be worse.
“If you have a road that is already cracked up on the surface and it freezes and expands, maybe light cracking becomes moderate and maybe moderate cracking becomes more severe,” said David Newcomb, head of the materials and pavements division at the Texas A&M Transportation Institute.
As the area thaws out, it will take weeks, possibly into March or April, to assess damage to the roads as routine use wears and worsens whatever the freeze caused. The early assessment, conducted as Texas Department of Transportation crews monitored for ice on roads, did not show any major problems to the area’s state roads, TxDOT spokeswoman Emily Black said. Crews spent Friday morning and afternoon clearing snow and ice off the shoulders of U.S. 290 and Interstate 69 in an attempt to minimize re-freezing at inlets and along the roadway.
That assessment is likely to
change in a few months, Black said, when roads start to show their wear. TxDOT officials already are preparing for more maintenance needs, notably additional work to seal cracks and more pothole maintenance, she said.
“We know we’re probably going to see more damage because this was an extraordinary event,” Black said. “We just won’t know how much.”
City streets could face a worse fate. Higher temperatures allowed for fast melting of the few places still slick by Friday, but pooling remained a possibility with another hard freeze early Saturday. City officials did not respond to requests for comment on efforts to protect streets.
Newcomb said he expects most roads to come away from the freeze unscathed. In most cases, he said, the ice will melt and move off the surface. Improvements in asphalt in the last 30 years also make it more resilient, due in part in many places to its black color which helps melt the ice when the sun comes out.
Though this arctic snap wreaked havoc on Texas water pipes and electric utilities, the frigid cold of this week is nothing compared to the pounding pavement takes in the Midwest or northern states. In Minnesota, for example, with its longer, colder winters, freezing temperatures can penetrate several feet into the ground. A week of winter weather will not seep too far into the Texas soil, saving a lot of the roadbed from cracking and sinking conditions.
“I think the roads are going to be serviceable. People are going to get to and from work on major roads,” Newcomb said.
As much as this week’s freeze seemed like a repeat of the harsh 2011 winter, which also featured power failures followed by epic degradation of area roads, there are differences. The 2011 freeze came during the early months of a five-year drought that crumbled the clay-rich soil beneath many Houston-area roads. Whatever moisture there was to slick roads at that time did double-duty by expanding as ice and worsening pavement and then melting and helping erode the subsoil.
“It was awful,” said Karen Cobb, 60, recalling how bad Houston roads got near her Montrose-area condo. “It was like driving on the surface of the moon.”
For now, officials said Southeast Texas is is looking at surface issues that should not be that bad.
Where the issues will arise, Newcomb said, are residential streets that already are in bad shape. Any small potholes are places where water can freeze and further break apart the asphalt. Over time, those failures are exacerbated by automobile traffic.
Hence, Isaac’s trip in Spring Branch is likely to have more whacks and more moles, along the lesser-traveled streets.
“I thought it was getting better,” he said of the street conditions. “Guess we’ll just wait and see.”
As will road crews, especially in Houston where elected officials have made a priority of street conditions. In early 2016, days into his first term, Mayor Sylvester Turner pledged to address the growing pothole problem. The city has made progress since, but it has not necessarily kept steady pace.
Spikes in the number of potholes reported by residents in 2016 and 2019 — when Turner was running for re-election and pledged progress — dropped to a five-year low last year. After setting an all-time record filling nearly 90,000 potholes in 2019, more than 95 percent proactively by Houston Public Works, the total number filled last year dipped to 83,000, according to city data.
That could make 2021 a banner year if the winter weather leads to larger holes and compounds what already has been a strange year for most residents.
“I was so excited to be done with 2020,” Cobb said. “2021 isn’t any better.”