Winter takes heavy toll on nation's pipes, pavement and road-repair budgets

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Icicles hang from a road sign as a convoy of power trucks moves down Belair Road in Columbia County.   JIM BLAYLOCK/STAFF
JIM BLAYLOCK/STAFF
Icicles hang from a road sign as a convoy of power trucks moves down Belair Road in Columbia County.

CHICAGO — This merciless winter is taking a heavy toll on the nation’s pipes and pavement, breaking hundreds of water mains that turn streets into frozen rivers and opening potholes so big they snap tire rims and wheel axles like Popsicle sticks.

From Iowa to New York and Michigan to Georgia, snow and bitter cold is testing the strength of the steel-and-cement skeletons on which our communities are built, the patience of the people who live there and the stamina of crews whose job is to keep the roads safe and the taps running.

Even after the weather eases, state and local governments will be left with steep repair bills that could affect their budgets for months to come.

In scores of cities, once-smooth roadways have been transformed into obstacle courses by gaping potholes that can seriously damage passing vehicles but are too large to avoid.

New York City crews filled 69,000 potholes in the first five weeks of the year - nearly twice as many as the same period in 2013. In Iowa, a Des Moines official said the city has never endured so many broken water mains.

Michigan’s top transportation official warned that the icy conditions would create more potholes than “we’ve probably ever seen in our lifetime.”

Busted water mains have created the most dramatic scenes - and the greatest challenge for repair crews, who must dig into rock-hard ground to reach pipes that are up to a century old and cannot withstand the pressure created by earth that shifts as it freezes.

On Tuesday, a broken water main in Detroit flooded several blocks, trapping cars that included a taxi. The cab driver had to be plucked out by rescue workers.

“The fireman came and got me out - put me on his shoulder,” Michael Hooks said. “Thank you, Detroit firemen.”

The western Illinois city of Moline has had 61 water main breaks so far.

Far less dramatic but especially aggravating are all the potholes, which form after water seeps into cracks in the pavement, turns to ice and expands.

Chicago’s potholes are multiplying by the thousands. In just the first six weeks of this year, the transportation department said crews have dumped about 2,000 tons of patching material into more than 125,000 potholes. The city is almost certain to fill more than the 625,000 patched potholes.

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