CATEGORY: HWY Highways
Ice leaves a legacy
Winter’s freeze-thaw cycle punishes streets, highways
By Philip Moulden
State and local officials are girding for major road damage throughout Northeast Mississippi this year, damage brought on in large part by a harsh winter.
No assessment of the damage has yet been made, and problems will keep popping up through the spring, even without more adverse weather, officials say. And with winter barely half-gone, the rain-freeze-thaw cycle so detrimental to roads may not be over.
“The freeze-thaw affects them, damages them (streets) a lot,” said Joe Benefield, Tupelo’s chief operations officer. “This has been a really bad winter. The last two winters have hurt us.”
“The freezes and thaws are going to make the asphalt not hold up as well,” he said.
“It’ll play havoc with them (roads),” agreed Lee County Road Manager John Phipps. “I can’t remember it being this bad in the last six years.”
Bigger and bigger
“What it (a deep freeze) does is turn the road beds into glass, basically,” Phipps said. The roads are then easily cracked, and the process of building potholes begins.
“They just keep getting bigger and bigger and bigger,” Phipps added.
But it’s not just the cold that causes problems. Without moisture, the freezing temperatures would not be nearly as devastating.
When water flows into cracks in the road, saturates the roadbed below, and freezes, it expands. The pressure breaks up grading materials and widens the surface cracks.
A thaw then permits water to seep deeper into the resulting crevices and another freeze compounds the damage.
“You’d be better off if you had one freeze, and it lasted all winter,” said Zack Stewart, Northern District commissioner for the state Department of Transportation.
Yet the problem grows even when air temperatures don’t rise above freezing, as occurred for roughly four days during the latest ice storm.
Roads absorb heat, especially when there is sunshine, and that melts ice even though thermometers say it shouldn’t. The resulting runoff refills the cracks, then freezes again when night falls.
The weight of the four or more inches of ice on the streets, which Northeast Mississippi experienced in the past week, as well as the weight of ice removal equipment, also adds to road stress, noted Charlie England, city assistant public works director.
“You will see a lot more potholes when this weather clears up,” Benefield said.
And motorists will continue to see holes crop up through the spring. That’s because lesser damage will become visible only after extensive pounding by traffic.
“It may not show up for one, two, three months, depending on how much traffic and how much weight is put on them,” Phipps said.
“It’s sort of like a sore, it will come to the top,” England said. “We’ll see more of them (holes) any day now.”
Concrete roads fare better than asphalt roads in winter, but that doesn’t necessarily make them better, England said.
“The concrete can take it better, but the asphalt is easier (and cheaper) to repair,” he said.
As in tooth care, prevention is better than repair. But that takes up-front money – money that Stewart says has not been sufficient in almost a decade.
“We should be overlaying about 850 miles a year. We’re probably doing about half that much,” he said of the state highways. “To make an impact, we’d need $15 million to $20 million more a year.”
Stewart said the funding shortfall began about 1987 as department responsibilities grew. The then Highway Department, when replacing old highways with new, turned the old stretches over to local governments. But many local entities later returned the “gifts,” leaving the state with many more miles to maintain, Stewart said.
“Several hundred miles were added to our system, but no more money,” he said.
When the Highway Department became the Department of Transportation it also assumed additional duties, including highway weight enforcement. And under the recent “harvest permit” law, fines that once went to the DOT were diverted to counties, Stewart said.
“Since we became the Department of Transportation, we have lost $10 million to $12 million a year (costs versus appropriations),” he said. “Creating the DOT was the proper thing to do, but we didn’t expect to lose this kind of money.”
But some local governments indicate they are a little better prepared financially this year to repair the damage.
“Fortunately we were given a lot of money (by the Tupelo City Council) for streets this year,” Benefield said. “We haven’t spent much of that money so far, and when it clears up we will repair of lot of this.”
England urged residents to contact his department when they see road damage.
“We find most of them (holes), but we can’t know where all of them are at,” he said.