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Originally published Sunday, January 2, 2011 at 9:28 PM

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Seattle's 'pothole rangers' get extra help starting today

Seattle is sending extra crews of "pothole rangers" to make repairs starting Monday.

Seattle Times transportation reporter

The chronically bumpy streets of Seattle are crumbling so fast that the city is sending extra crews of "pothole rangers" to make repairs, starting Monday.

Citizens filed 1,800 requests and complaints in December, and 1,200 remained on backlog as of Dec. 30, according to the Seattle Department of Transportation. So nine crews will be on the roads this month, instead of the usual two or three, said Steve Pratt, street maintenance director.

Even then, it will be a challenge to catch up. Pratt hopes to respond to new holes within 72 hours.

Since the Nov. 22 freeze and the Dec. 12 rainstorm, "we've had the Seattle classic pothole blowup here," Pratt said.

Weather and geology are not the only culprits.

"The priorities of city government in the last 50 years, not enough attention was focused on the street maintenance and preservation programs," said Pratt, hired this fall from Snohomish County. The immediate problem, of filling up to 1,200 potholes, represents a month's worth of catchup, he said, compared with a normal backlog of 150 to 250 spots.

Many taxpayers expected the 2006 "Bridging the Gap" program to fix the streets, but its property- and parking-tax increases were earmarked for specific bridge improvements, major projects such as Mercer Street and the Spokane Street Viaduct, or bicycle and pedestrian routes. Street paving has been funded mainly by general transportation revenues such as gas and real-estate taxes — which flatlined because of the recession.

The city budget this year includes $42.2 million for street repair and "major maintenance" such as repaving. That total is virtually identical to 2010, and about one-seventh of the $313 million transportation budget.

Seattle and other cities routinely receive claims from people who are injured or suffer property damage from potholes.

Unwelcome craters

As if to say "Welcome to Seattle," a crater the size of a wagon wheel greeted drivers last week in the center southbound lane of Highway 99, just before the Aurora Bridge. Drivers in the know slowed or swerved, while others took a jolt. The gap opened a month ago, soon after the Thanksgiving-week freeze, said Todd Welter, owner of Wave Hounds Surf Shop a few yards away.

Only one Pothole Rangers crew was operating in the entire North End on Thursday, as other street workers were tied up on brining duty or on standby in case of snow. The lone crew patched at least three big holes on Greenwood Avenue North near the city limit. The men said passing drivers shout an equal mix of praise and abuse.

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The worst potholes tend to be in the North End, especially Crown Hill, Pratt said.

Many streets north of Green Lake were annexed from formerly semirural areas. "Those roads were not built to any kind of standard, back in the old days," he said. "Basically they paved asphalt on dirt, with no gravel subbase." Instead of draining, stormwater forms puddles beneath the blacktop, he said.

But even major arterials are wearing out, such as North 85th Street, now brown dust in a few spots going west toward Greenwood. Kelsee Lopez, customer-service specialist at Meineke Car Care Center nearby, said she hates to drive 85th on work errands. "I slow down, I probably go about 20, and I have people riding me, they want to pass," she said.

A few potholes offer glimpses of Seattle's original redbrick roadbeds, as on Rainier Avenue South near South Rose Street, and Thomas Street at 19th Avenue East.

Portions of 15th Avenue Northeast, which runs alongside the University of Washington campus, has become little more than black gravel.

It's one of many streets battered by the busy King County Metro Transit bus network, the nation's seventh largest by passenger miles. The trade-off for busy transit is that a typical coach, more than 44,000 pounds, can scour blacktop and even break concrete panels. Bellevue's pristine pavement from Interstate 90 to downtown is marred by a single huge divot — in a bus pullout along Bellevue Way Southeast.

Where Seattle has recently rebuilt streets — on Rainier approaching Mount Baker Station; on 23rd Avenue East from East Madison Street to East Aloha Street; and Greenwood Avenue North just north of Holman Road Northwest — hard concrete was poured on the right lane where buses go, followed by cheaper, softer blacktop in the left lane.

Good news for travelers: The city in 2011 is scheduled to repave not only 15th Avenue Northeast, but four streets serving industrial and small-business areas of Georgetown, and Dexter Avenue North, a popular bicycle commuting route.

Even on state highways, holes and cracks are apparent where concrete and blacktop sections intersect — for instance, the Mercer Street onramp to northbound I-5 last week. But the state Department of Transportation says it's responding as normal.

"As far as I know, we haven't had a pothole plague," spokeswoman Bronlea Mishler said.

At the city limit where Seattle's Greenwood Avenue North becomes Shoreline's Westminster Way North, the road suddenly becomes smooth, helped by black sealants that Shoreline pours into cracks. But Shoreline has had problems during reconstruction of Aurora Avenue North, where steel plates and patched-up utility trenches have shaken cars, said Martin Garcia, manager of Lee's Automotive in North Seattle.

Triple threat

Potholes pose a triple threat — to drivers, bicyclists and pedestrians.

Elizabeth Wright, a newcomer to Seattle, said she stepped into a U-shape hole Sept. 4, 2009, after getting off her bus along Northwest Campus Parkway at University Way Northeast. Protecting a coffee in her right hand, she landed on her left hand, breaking the forearm. Fortunately, a surgeon was able to insert a plate and sew the skin, without marring the Red Sox "B" insignia on her wrist.

"What surprises me is, in Boston if there's a pothole they come and do a temporary fix until the weather warms up," she said. "Here, it's not even temporary."

In the University District, Gabrielle Roesch said she is bicycling less on 15th Northeast and driving more, for safety. The rutted pavement near curbside was forcing her farther into traffic, and she knows a professor who needed facial surgery after falling there.

Even before the November freeze, Avalon Way Southwest, a primary main bus and bike route, cracked badly enough that, to coast safely downhill, a cyclist needs to swing wide or even use the center left-turn lane.

Travelers constantly are educating themselves as to where holes lurk.

"It's definitely a safety hazard, when you have to maneuver around a pothole into oncoming traffic," Roesch said. "You're forced to do that a lot now."

Employees at Gregg's Greenlake Cycle haven't noticed a surge in bent bike rims, despite the advanced decay of Northeast Ravenna Boulevard nearby. Wayne Fujiki, a parts salesman, theorized Ravenna's wide bike lanes give riders the chance to swerve around holes.

Nonetheless, shops in Pothole City are featuring a new breed of commuter bikes, equipped with fat tires, spring-supported seats and even shock absorbers.

Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631 or mlindblom@seattletimes.com

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