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Annual Pothole Battle Gets Bigger and More Expensive

Like any native Montanan, especially one with a Subaru, I like to drive nearly everywhere.

My daily commute to the University is a circus of dodging and slowing down for an ever-increasing amounts of potholes, some small and unnoticeable, and others the size of small canyons. Either way, a pothole grows, no matter how small they are, and my poor tires hit them.

Potholes are one of the major infrastructure problems affecting Missoula.

Climatologists argue that effects of climate change are increasing the amount of moisture buildup underneath the layer of asphalt – which in turn weakens the foundation of asphalt roadways and causes potholes to form when heavy vehicles drive over the affected areas of the road.

Climate change also causes asphalt to bend and expand more rapidly due to unexpected periods of warm weather during the winter season which is typically cold and has frozen roads in Western Montana.Picture1

Missoula’s Mayor John Engen issued a stern warning about this year’s battle against potholes at the State of the Community Forum on February 8th.

“Fair warning: Super big pothole season coming…552 to 6000,” Engen said, referencing the estimated number of potholes that will form or have formed in Missoula this year.

Damages from potholes cost motorists an average of $300 per repair according to a 2015 study by the American Automobile Association. The same report also stated that U.S. drivers rack up over $3 billion a year on fixing damages caused by potholes. The AAA also said that 64 percent of American drivers are concerned about potholes on local roadways.

The Missoulian also reported that this spring will be the 5th year the City of Missoula will be utilizing a $189,000 asphalt recycler that it borrowed from the City of Bozeman in 2011.

The machine essentially heats up old asphalt into steaming street patches. This is a more effective repair than cold patch repairing which doesn’t have great longevity and depends on a large supply of expensive asphalt.

The City of Missoula acquired a second asphalt recycler and has hired two more seasonal employees to spend three months this spring and three months in fall sealing cracks and potholes throughout town. The spring crew started repair work on April 1st.

The status of our crumbling infrastructure isn’t just endemic to Missoula, it is a major concern in other Montana towns like Butte and Miles City.

KPAX News reported on April 25, 2016 that members of Montana’s Democratic Party have started a statewide assessment of infrastructure and community concerns called the Building Montana Communities Tour.

State House and state Senate leaders will meet with community leaders and listen to their thoughts and ideas as they outline priorities for the 2017 legislative session.

Montana House District 91 Representative Bryce Bennett told KPAX News in the April 25 story that, “Communities in Montana depend on their legislature investing in their infrastructure they need to have great business, to invest in their schools, to make sure their streets are paved, and that they are not going over potholes all the time.”

Politicians may have a temporary solution to repairing the infrastructure but there is still the issue of funding for these desired repairs.

Missoula receives most of its road repair funding from the Federal Trust Fund – which has been insolvent since 2008.

The Missoula Independent on April 14, published an opinion article on potholes by Dan Brooks. The author wrote that the Public Works Committee – who are responsible for city transportation concerns – brought up the possibility of of initiating a two-cents-per-gallon tax on gasoline.

Montana receives its roadway repair funds from a federal gas taxes which has sat at 18.4 cents- per-gallon since 1994. The state also gathers its own revenue from a state-enacted 27.7 cents-per-gallon tax it passed the same year.

In order to propose a local gasoline tax hike, the Missoula City Council needs approval by the Board of County Commissioners to put it on the upcoming ballot. The last time a proposal like this made it onto a ballot was in 1994 when a two-cent tax increase failed by a 55 percent vote against the tax hike to a 45 percent vote in favor of it. The Public Works Committee said the chances of getting a gasoline tax increase on the 2016 ballot.

As climate change continues to shift our weather patterns toward warmer and more extreme weather, roads continue to crumble and the annual costs to repair such damage rises. Missoula might have a temporary solution to repairing the “breeding” potholes now, but time, cost, and a rising population may catch up and make repair costs too expensive for both the county and state budgets to handle.

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