by Linda Spice, Additional research by Cristina Daglas, photo by Carl Corey
The calls come in relentlessly, sometimes more than a hundred in a day. Complaints about potholes, citizen after citizen wanting to gripe, grumble or grill staff at the city of Milwaukee’s call center about the crumbling, cratered streets.
Once Milwaukee was famed for well-maintained roads and avenues. As recently as 2001, the city didn’t even tally calls about potholes. But as its streets began to disintegrate, citizens began to complain, and the city began tracking calls. There were 6,313 complaints about potholes in 2002. That rose to 8,500 in 2004, then 10,774 in 2007 and an incredible 16,778 in 2008.
Anthony Sherwin (“that’s Sherwin, like the paint”) handles many of the complaints and has managed the call center since 2007. Along with all the griping and moaning, he’s also heard lots of ingenious solutions. Use kitty litter, one caller suggested. Pack ’em with peanut butter, offered another.
“Another person called and said, ‘Why don’t you close the city down for a day and give everybody pothole material and we fill the potholes?’ They wanted to save taxpayer dollars,” says Sherwin. Nice.
2008 was the nightmare year. The angry gods of winter dropped 99.1 inches of snow on the city – the second-highest total on record – and there was enough freezing and thawing and freezing and thawing to pockmark untold miles of city streets.
2009 was a little more manageable. Just 11,894 calls. Sherwin’s staff kept it mellow, with smooth jazz playing in the office between the calls and complaints. Maybe the image of the cartoon character the Heat Miser, mounted on the office bulletin board, with his red-flared, Don King-styled hairdo, was bringing luck, melting away some of the problems.
Actually, there are images of Telly Savalas and Barney Fife on the bulletin board, too. Sherwin likes to keep things light. And simple. He’s the one, after all, who helped convince the city last year to do away with the phone tree after a community group made the suggestion. You know, the annoying “Press 1 for this, press 2 for that.” He wants government to be accessible, for the phone to ring and a live voice to answer.
When that voice is his, his explanation on potholes is this: “Basically, there’s a little cavity that grows in the road. Water will always find its lowest level. It creeps into that cavity. It freezes, raises up the asphalt and thaws. The cavity is raised and a car comes over it and smashes that cavity down. Now it’s been smushed down and broken up, and it leaves a hole.” A pothole. “I don’t think people realize the force and weight of vehicles when they ride over these things,” Sherwin adds.
A Cubs fan, Sherwin drives to Chicago every spring. “Chicago has much worse potholes than Milwaukee does, trust me,” he says.
That’s small comfort. The latest audit by Milwaukee’s comptroller shows that 21 percent, or 214, of its local streets are in poor condition. “They’re doing pothole-filling as we speak,” says Ald. Robert J. Bauman, head of the Common Council’s Public Works Committee. “The pothole problem will continue. We’re falling behind and continue to fall behind with no hope of catching up. There’s really no systemic effort to reconstruct the streets.”
Nor is Milwaukee the only problem. Older concrete streets in Waukesha and battered county roads in communities like Greenfield, Oak Creek, South Milwaukee and Franklin have officials there – as in Milwaukee – lamenting the situation they face. No money. No repairs.
Greenfield Mayor Mike Neitzke easily rattles off a list of the most-cratered roads in this suburb of 36,000 people: Beloit Road, Forest Home Avenue, Loomis Road, 27th Street, all state roads. Layton Avenue and College Avenue - Milwaukee County’s responsibility. But both the state and county have money constraints. So most of the potholes will probably remain. Neitzke says Loomis and 27th streets are scheduled for resurfacing.
“When you start fixing them instead of patching them, that tends to help,” he adds.
The city of Waukesha knows the problem well. “Our streets are falling apart,” says Fred Abadi, Waukesha’s director of public works. “We have a lot of old roads that either need to be reconstructed or resurfaced. There is not enough money to fix them. With limited federal dollars, we have to rely on our local dollars, and we are doing the best we can.”
Officials from Milwaukee, Waukesha, Ozaukee, Washington, Walworth, Racine and Kenosha counties all signed a letter in October to state Transportation Secretary Frank Busalacchi asking the state to reconsider an expected 10.8 percent cut in the 2010 Routine Maintenance Agreement. That’s the pot of money the state uses to pay counties to fix parts of its roads that run through their communities.
Jack Takerian, Milwaukee County’s interim director of transportation and public works, says the reduced state funding is likely to cut back road work in 2010, which includes potholes, pothole repair and materials, as well as roadside maintenance.
“Potholes are going to be a major issue on the state roadways in 2010,” he predicts. But the problem will grow as a result of maintenance cutbacks this summer. 2011, he says, will be even worse.
Tim Summers was driving northwest along Appleton Avenue when he was rudely introduced to Milwaukee’s asphalt annoyance. His 9-year-old gray Ford Taurus hit a pothole nearly dead on.
“It was a major wake-up call for everybody in the car. ‘Oh my God. What did we just hit?’ The noise is so impactful. The first thing you think is, ‘What damage did that cause?’ ” Summers says.
The car had hit an 8-inch-deep, 2-foot-wide hole. The result wasn’t pretty. The Taurus needed a new rear upper strut mount, new right inner tie rod and a new tire.
Summers had already lost his job, his house to foreclosure, his family van to repossession. He’d been laid off last January after three years with Ellsworth Adhesives in Germantown. Now he rents a small, upper, two-bedroom apartment in Milwaukee with his wife and four young children. He shuffles through pages of car repair bills atop his living room table, trying to recall the total bill for his encounter with one of Milwaukee’s yawning craters.
Auto repair shops see many customers with pothole problems.
“We did a Saab; it cost $940,” says Mark Scheufele, shop manager at Tenley Auto Center, 9208 W. Capitol Dr. “A pothole destroyed the tire, cracked the rim. Going 25 to 35 mph into a 3-inch-deep hole can do a lot of damage.”
“We get maybe three [pothole damage] jobs a week,” says Kent Maynard, operations manager at Bill Maynard’s Auto Service at 4061 W. Loomis Rd. “They average $500 a pop; $1,500 a week is pretty good business.”
“I’m not going to go and dig a hole in front of my shop,” jokes Randy Revernick, owner of State of the Art Import Auto Repair at 6210 W. State St., “but they do bring in business.”
Auto repair technicians tick off the possible problems caused by potholes: damaged tires, rims, ball joints, control ends, chassis and more. “We just fixed a car where a pothole bent the steering rack,” says Scheufele.
“Newer cars have a lot of alloy rims,” he adds. “An aluminum alloy transfers energy into the cars. The old cars, the steel rims will give and not do as much damage.”
With the lighter, fuel-efficient cars these days, it doesn’t take much to bend a control arm or a wheel, says John Blamer. Blamer’s Auto Repair, at 7605 W. Center St., borders what was one of the city’s roughest roads, North 76th Street. But it has improved dramatically since being repaved in 2009, the traffic cones coming down sometime around October.
Scheufele points to 92nd Street from Capitol Drive to Brown Deer Road, particularly going northbound. “It’s just a horror,” he says. “You can put out $600 just from hitting a pothole.”
Everyone seems to have a street to nominate as a pothole hell. For Ald. Willie Wade, it was 51st Street from Roosevelt to Capitol. “We had to go through and fill potholes five times,” he notes.
It’s like a piece of torn clothing, says Ald. Michael Murphy. “You can only repair it so many times.” Murphy’s personal un-favorite is Lisbon Avenue. “We’re trying to petition the state to move that street up the list.”
Ald. Joe Davis Sr. points to Fond du Lac Avenue. Ald. James N. Witkowiak nominates Howard Avenue from Sixth to 13th Street. “I get a lot of calls about holes and conditions on the Hoan Bridge,” reports Milwaukee County Supervisor Marina Dimitrijevic. College Avenue, answers Supervisor Patricia Jursik, while Supervisor Mark Borkowski nominates 76th Street between Imperial and Puetz.
Then there are the 120 miles of roadway in Milwaukee County’s parks, some riddled with potholes. A recent county audit estimated it could cost $100 million to replace all the roads needing repair.
Out in Washington County, Highway Commissioner Jon Edgren says he’s seeing many roads in decline. The top two problem-makers, he says, are County Trunk Y, or Lannon Road, in the village of Germantown, and County Trunk Highway H, in the northern half of Washington County.
It was a pothole near Sherman Boulevard and Custer Avenue that damaged the 2003 Mercury Sable of Milwaukee resident Jodi Jackson. “The car went up and down. The noise was terrible.”
Her front struts were damaged. Now out $400 and anticipating more repairs to come, she questions why city officials aren’t more proactive. “In all fairness, garbage trucks, police officers, fire department, paramedics, somebody in an official capacity had to have passed that before me. It should have been reported and fixed.”
Actually, those city officials are often in the same boat. At the Milwaukee Fire Department, Battalion Chief Sean Slowey is commander of technical services for Engine 21, at North Palmer and East Lloyd streets. Their trucks are getting damaged by potholes. Water tanks, broken springs and a radiator needed repair.
Ironically, even city trucks handling the snow have problems. Boost a truck’s weight by 12,000 pounds of salt and an 1,800-pound plow, and you hit the holes hard. “Your truck is more susceptible to damage from any potholes,” says Jeff Tews, fleet operations manager for Milwaukee’s Department of Public Works. Flat tires and even a broken leaf spring have been the result, he notes.
Slowey makes a habit of apologizing to patients for the ride ahead of them before paramedics start up the ambulance.“I tell them the ride is going to be bumpy and uncomfortable, which you hope you wouldn’t have to do when you’re taking someone to the hospital.”
He says newer trucks being purchased by the department are coming equipped with better suspension systems. “They’re basically built to adapt to our crummy roads,” he says.
Slowey has been in the department for 30 years. He grew up in Boston, recalling the bad roads in his hometown back then. Coming to Milwaukee, he was impressed by the almost-pristine streets here. That was three decades ago, though. Like many, he wonders what’s gone wrong. How have Milwaukee’s streets declined so badly?
First elected in 1992, Milwaukee Comptroller Wally Morics is the official nag of the city, the man who points out bad financial practices, often to the annoyance of other officials. His time as watchguard actually goes back to 1976, when he started as deputy comptroller. Morics traces the pothole problem back to the early 1990s, arguing that then-Mayor John Norquist began lengthening the cycle for replacing city streets, so repairs were made more slowly. Morics also points to the loss around then of the city’s Capital Improvements Committee, of which he was a member. It had provided aldermen with information on what was truly happening with the streets.
“When the committee was abolished, that information was lost. The change came around the time we went from a weak mayor to a cabinet form of government,” he says. “The information was pretty well kept inside with Mayor Norquist. Different priorities took place. One of the easiest things to defer is capital improvement. If we didn’t replace streets for a year, would anyone notice? No. If we didn’t replace them for 10 years? You betcha.”
Morics is playing a familiar game, says Norquist. “I used to cross my arms in front of my body and point my fingers in each direction and say, ‘That’s a municipal coat of arms,’ ” he quips. In short, point your fingers at anyone else in municipal government to deflect the blame. Norquist, who served as mayor from 1988 to 2003 and is now president and CEO of Congress for the New Urbanism in Chicago, recalls things differently.
“We didn’t cut the budget. We just changed the way we did it.” The city started replacing streets based on the condition of the pavement rather than automatically repaving them even if that wasn’t necessary. Not every street deteriorates at the same rate, he says.
“The truth is, you have a winter with a lot of freezing and melting and freezing and melting, you might have a lot of potholes. It’s hard to trace it to 15 years before,” he adds.
Ald. Jim Bohl, who ordered up Morics’ 2008 audit on the issue, blames the pothole problem not only on Norquist, but also his successor, Mayor Tom Barrett.
“The Norquist administration and the Barrett administration, in the wake of tightening budgets, in real dollars, the Department of Public Works and areas like infrastructure became the whipping boy,” Bohl says. “Police and Fire were exempt, so you looked at where you could get off on the cheap. That was by not putting money into the infrastructure. Those were fateful decisions.”
Barrett says that when and how the problem started is something “I haven’t delved into.” He’s focused on solutions. “So my view is, I’m not going to cast aspersions toward any previous administrations in terms of road repair cycles. I simply am trying to do the best I can to shorten the cycle given the resources we have.”
Easier said than done. Combine flat or declining state-shared revenue with rising fixed costs and Milwaukee – as well as other municipalities – may all be getting pushed “Between a Rock and a Hard Place,” as the nonpartisan Public Policy Forum titled its analysis of Milwaukee’s fiscal crisis. The report was released just as Barrett offered a 2010 budget boosting funding for street resurfacing and reconstruction.
Not enough, the forum concluded: “The increase is not sufficient to correct nearly two decades of underfunding, and it will fail to ameliorate in the near term the 21 percent of city streets found to be in poor condition by a 2008 independent audit.”
Looking at the potential for future tradeoffs – like potholes versus police – the forum’s president, Rob Henken, says the issue isn’t really being faced. “We’re not having those conversations. We’re at the point where this can’t be solved by deferring maintenance and coming up with sources of one-time revenue across the board.”
He questions whether road maintenance will become another example of an underfunded or unfunded state mandate, which will require local property taxes to fill the gap. “Or will local and county officials say, ‘Too bad, this is one case where we’re not going to fill the gap.’?”
In Washington County, Edgren says his two top problem-makers are scheduled for reconstruction. Lannon Road’s fix is expected to come in the spring of 2010, to the tune of $3 million, and County Trunk Highway H in 2011 for about $4 million. Both are being funded through grants, he notes. But he sees problems on the horizon: “We’re underfunded. We need to catch that up a little bit.
“Maintenance is a difficult thing to understand for a lot of people,” he says. “When you take that money away, it’s not something you recognize next year, or in three years.” Too often, he adds, counties and municipalities don’t know they’re spending too little on roads until it is too late and potholes have formed.
“From the state level, they’ve taken money designated for state roadway maintenance and repairs and moved it to other places within the budget. It’s clearly beginning to show.”
“It’s a trickle-down effect,” agrees Milwaukee County’s Takerian. “If the state gets reduced, it reduces the local pots. I understand that, but it’s preventive maintenance, and a lack of that is why you see more and more potholes popping up.”
David Vieth is director of the Bureau of Highway Operations for Wisconsin’s Department of Transportation. He hears the counties’ cries but says from the state’s perspective, potholes will continue to be the priority – and not long-term maintenance.
“If you have a pothole that ends up influencing a driver to depart from their lane, that’s a safety issue. Or if it’s severe enough that they might lose control, that’s a safety issue,” Vieth says. “It’s a higher priority. We don’t have the money to do preventive activities. The dollars just aren’t there.”
But is there even enough money to just take care of the worst potholes? In their October letter of complaint to the state DOT, officials from the six southeastern Wisconsin counties noted, “When questioned about how WisDOT would like us to implement the cuts, our staff indicated that more information from the WisDOT central office would be forthcoming.”
But Shane Crawford, Walworth County’s deputy administrator and director of public works, says he’s still waiting for that answer. “I understand the situation they’re in. The state has had a difficult time balancing their books. Routine maintenance by definition doesn’t sound like it would be first on my list.” But meanwhile, he notes, the state is continuing to build brand new roads. “And it can’t maintain the ones we have.”
Exactly, says Bauman. The city has taken a “fix it first” stance in lobbying for federal dollars, arguing that aging infrastructure should take priority over new road projects. He notes the state is spending $200 million to add one lane in each direction to expand I-94 from the Illinois state line to Milwaukee. That amount would cover the entire cost to reconstruct the 21 percent of city streets that need it.
“Before you put in a rec room, you have to fix your roof,” Bauman says. But he adds that fixing the roof won’t win any plaudits for politicians: “It’s not as sexy for the governor and a state senator to cut a ribbon for a pothole repair as it is to cut a ribbon for a freeway expansion.”
As officials point the blame at other levels of government, rather like the image Norquist evokes, the federal government inevitably comes up. Waukesha’s Abadi notes that of eight counties in the Milwaukee region that applied for federal transportation dollars in 2009, only $38 million came through. They’d applied for $200 million.
“You can see the need versus the available funds,” he says. “What we need is a significant increase at the federal level for transportation projects to solve the problem.” But Wisconsin is in competition with 49 other states, and many of them also have pothole problems.
In the weeks prior to December’s chill, city of Milwaukee street crews try taking advantage of the warmer-than-usual weather to pour hot asphalt into the expanding cracks of Milwaukee’s aging streets. Any repairs in the months that follow will mean using cold patching, which has a shorter life span.
As highs hit the 50s while Thanksgiving approaches, Milwaukee DPW employees Glenn Force and Mattie Addison find themselves, at 8 a.m. on a hazy day, waiting in line at Northwest Asphalt. With two days left to the hot asphalt patching season, they fill the bed of their yellow public works truck with sizzling chunks of 400-degree, deep-black asphalt, then head for the 8100 block of West Beckett Avenue.
Addison swooshes a broom across a crumble of road with a forceful forward swing that gathers rocks, leaves and dirt into a small pile. She bends down. With her hand covered by a striped canvas garden glove, she pulls out some wet leaves and stubborn twigs that stick out but don’t want to leave their home underneath the pavement. Force dips a brush into a bucket of grease and swipes it across his metal shovel. He digs into his load and heads to the first hole. He dumps the black asphalt, pounds it down and then walks back to the truck for more patch.
For the drivers worried about their tires hitting potholes, Force smiles and with a laugh says, “Don’t worry about it. I’m out here.”
The mild winter produces its first real thaw in mid-January, and pothole complaints start to come in. But not as many as the same time last year, says Sherwin, reading reports inside the city’s call center.
“We had 50 today,” Sherwin says, checking on early January reports. Fifty reports of potholes. “Some of these, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 11, 12 and 13, were self-reported by the crews themselves. If they see one, they don’t just drive over it. They fix it.”
He looks at the 254 calls between Jan. 1 and 14 in comparison to the 435 during the same time in 2009 and 476 in 2008 as a downward trend. He attributes the lower figures to the mild weather, but also gives credit to aggressive street crews, who tackled multiple paving projects in 2009, a plan expected to continue in 2010 thanks to a boost in federal funds.
Across the nation, other cities remain cash-strapped and pothole-plagued, too. Some have been desperate enough to consider a solution one wag described as “tire-licking good.” KFC, the company formerly known as Kentucky Fried Chicken, has proposed a private-public partnership to the nation’s mayors. Last year, the company offered to help pay to repair potholes with temporary, stenciled advertisements that read, “Re-Freshed by KFC.” In Louisville, the company’s hometown, an actor hired to play Col. Sanders donned a yellow hard hat and vest to look more like a municipal worker as he stamped the “Re-Freshed by KFC” label. The colonel could be pretty busy: KFC has estimated the nation has 350 million potholes.
Food seems to be the new solution to potholes. Perhaps those Milwaukee callers suggesting peanut butter weren’t so far off. Several states are now looking to soybeans. RePLAY, a soy-and-canola-based pavement preservation agent, is being touted by its maker, Missouri-based BioSpan Technologies Inc., as a less-expensive means of protecting longer-term roads. The company says the product can seal the voids in the asphalt, preventing water from penetrating.
Meanwhile, the federal government is interested in funding solutions. A team from UCLA’s Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science was awarded $3.05 million in December by the U.S. Commerce Department to develop an innovative pothole-repair technology for asphalt pavement. The Commerce Department’s Technology Innovation Program supports high-risk and high-payoff research in new technologies that address critical national needs in civil infrastructure, according to university officials.
Until the technology catches up with the continual cracks, however, local officials will still be patching and repaving and dealing with irate drivers, some so steamed they have attempted to sue the city of Milwaukee.
“As council members say, most of these folks are taxpayers, so ultimately they’re suing themselves,” says Jim Owczarski, deputy city clerk in Milwaukee. “The liability would be too great if we paid every claim in the city.”
How much is usually paid out?
“Pretty close to zero,” says Daryl Sobczak, district manager for Milwaukee’s DPW, who has amassed a stack of white papers atop his desk filled with thousands of dollars in claims against the city. He says the city cannot be held liable for a pothole if it didn’t know it existed. Once reported, though, employees aim to patch a pothole within three days, he says.
Comptroller Morics points to the recent reinstatement of the city’s Capital Improvements Committee as a plus, resurrecting reports on infrastructure, review and replacement strategies. All will now be out in the open.“It won’t be like the ’90s, when people weren’t sure what was happening with infrastructure,” he says.
Ald. Joseph Dudzik is chair of this committee, on which so many seem to be placing their bets for better city streets. He recalls his days as a “youngster in the DPW,” spending time on crews in the early 1980s filling potholes and cracks along streets like Fond du Lac Avenue. He remembers a supervisor who used to drop a quarter on the pavement to test the quality of the crew’s work.
“If you lost that quarter, that pavement wasn’t smooth enough for that guy. Maybe that was an extreme,” Dudzik says. “He’s since passed away. He’s probably rolling in his grave looking at the streets today.”
Ald. Bohl hopes the newly passed wheel tax, expected to generate more than $6 million annually, will help. And he is pushing ahead with his proposal to use tax incremental district funding to help pay for street construction work within a half-mile of a TID boundary, but not within the TID itself.
“We had to take the first necessary steps to turn the ship around. It’s like an ocean liner. You’re not going to turn on a dime,” he says. Or a quarter, it seems. Those days are long gone.
For Tim Summers, the solution is simple. “A lot of these fat-cat politicians need to stop yip-yapping about how they’re going to reduce taxes. I want to see action.”
It’s just a question of priorities, Summers contends. When you attract a few thousand motorcycles next to a strip club, he grumbles, potholes seem to get filled. He concedes that the repaving of Silver Spring Road might have already been planned before Harley-Davidson’s 105th anniversary in 2008, but he found the speed at which the road was repaved – just outside Harley’s offices and the nearby Silk gentlemen’s club – quite remarkable.
“They had that thing gleaming,” he says. “How is it that that got fixed so fast, but so many other roads don’t get handled at all?”
Meaning more strip clubs are the solution to potholes? Well, it’s probably no worse a solution than peanut butter.
Freelancer Linda Spice is a former Milwaukee Journal Sentinelreporter. Write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tallying complaint calls about potholes.
Statistics provided by Milwaukee Department of Public Works
Experts pick some of the worst streets in town.
Where are the worst potholes? We asked for nominations from Milwaukee Common Council and County Board members and area auto shop employees, and cross-checked against the list of streets slated for repaving in 2010 by the city of Milwaukee. We can’t say these are all of the worst ones. But you’d be well-advised to avoid them.
N. 27th St. from W. St. Paul Ave. to W. Highland Blvd.
S. 60th St. from W. Kinnickinnic River Pkwy. to W. Dickinson St. The area from N. 76th St. to N. 91st St., including N. 80th St., N. 81st St., N. 82nd St.,
N. 87th St. and N. 89th St. Special emphasis
on N. 91st St. from W. Hawthorne Ave. to
W. St. Paul Ave.
N. 107th St. from W. Brown Deer Rd. to W. County Line Rd.
W. Appleton Ave. from W. Capitol Dr. to Hwy. 45
E. College Ave. from S. Pennsylvania Ave. to
S. Howell Ave.
W. Fond du Lac Ave. from N. 19th St. to
N. 36th St.
W. Jackson Park Dr.
Portions of S. Kinnickinnic Ave.
W. Loomis Rd. from S. 51st St. to S. Lovers Lane Rd. (Hwy. 100)
Milwaukee River pkwy.
W. National Ave. from S. Layton Blvd. to
S. 39th St.
Portions of W. Oklahoma Ave.
W. Silver Spring Dr. from N. 68th St. to N. 92nd St.
W. Howard Ave. from S. Sixth St. to S. 13th St.
W. Lisbon Ave.
S. Sixth St. to S. 13th St.