Massive ice potholes on Anchorage’s side streets continue to torment Anchorage drivers weeks after they became a major problem, while asphalt potholes are increasingly in bloom.
City road crews are racing to catch up, and they’ve made headway improving many streets.
But in neighborhoods and parking lots throughout the city, motorists still face an obstacle course of craters and wheel-spinning ruts that have opened in thick sheets of ice. Snow berms remain piled high along some roads, reducing streets to single lanes.
Auto shops say they’re seeing more damaged tires, and drivers say they’re struggling to get around town.
Road maintenance managers continue to blame a series of back-to-back snowstorms and rain in February that forced road crews to focus on the busiest thoroughfares. Ice and snow built up on smaller streets. Freezes and thaws softened streets, resulting in “holes of death,” as a tow truck dispatcher described the ice potholes.
Jim Belz, a superintendent and 28-year employee with city street maintenance, said crews are hustling around the clock, working overtime and making a difference in many areas.
But the problems are citywide, he said.
“We have frozen drain calls, we have potholes, and this particular year the ice ruts and ice holes are more than normal,” he said.
During a phone interview Thursday afternoon, Belz said his crew of 40 was responding to about 100 calls. That volume is typical at any given moment this time of year, he said.
“Spring break-up is a tough time,” he said.
Road graders with their big blades are shaving down the sheets of ice that can be up to 10 inches thick. It’s best when a blade catches an edge and peels an ice sheet away, he said.
That effort has often added to snow berms alongside roads until they can be removed. Crews must haul off the berms in denser parts of town, such as in Mountain View, since the snow can’t be pushed out of the way like it can in other areas.
The city’s street maintenance section has spent about $300,000 more than normal from its snow-hauling budget, about a 25% increase, he said. He said he didn’t have overtime costs yet.
The daytime melting and freezing nights are bursting open potholes in asphalt when water seeps into the roadbed only to freeze later.
Crews this week filled about 80 asphalt potholes in a stretch of Baxter Road less than a mile long near Northern Lights Boulevard in East Anchorage. The potholes will be a problem until the road dries up and the freezing stops, he said.
The city filled about 12,000 potholes in 2021, and this year will be no better, he said.
“We have 1,400 miles of road and 10,000 drains,” he said. “We have crews that are working 24 hours a day, 80 people. So it takes a little bit of time, and we fight Mother Nature every day.”
The bad roads are generating increased business for auto shops, who said they’re seeing more frustrated customers than usual. They’re showing up with damaged tires, fenders and suspension systems.
“We’re seeing people hitting the potholes too hard and they crack the wheel, chew up the tire or put holes in the sidewall of the tire, so it’s no good,” said Angel Valentine, a manager at Alaska Tire Service off East 88th Avenue.
Costs for a tire repair can run at least $150, and that often has to be multiplied by four when it’s an all-wheel-drive vehicle that needs similar tires, Valentine said.
“It sucks for people when they hit those craters,” he said.
Gabe Fromm, with KD Discount Tire in Mountain View, said lots of cars have been towed in with one or two disabled tires.
“We’re seeing more people coming in and cursing at potholes than normal,” he said.
David Vasquez, a driver with ASAP Transport, drives modified, lower-than-typical vans for people with disabilities. He hasn’t seen the roads this bad ever, he said.
He’s driving super slow these days. The bouncing and twisting over bumps can be hard on clients, especially those with bone-related disabilities, and he’s worried about damaging the wheelchair ramp outside the van.
“It stresses me out because our clients have an uncomfortable ride, and it makes everything harder,” he said.
He got stuck last week in an ice pothole in Mountain View, but managed to get out with repeated back-up attempts.
Getting out is tricky, he said.
“If you don’t catch enough speed, you can’t get out of there,” he said. “But then you gotta go slow to avoid hitting anything.”
He’s bottomed out his Volkswagen Jetta a couple of times, getting stuck in ice potholes in his neighborhood in South Anchorage.
Mike Rochin with AMS Couriers, which delivers COVID-19 vaccines and specimens, said his drivers have hit a few big ice potholes this year.
“It’s slowing us down,” he said.
AMS drivers operate box trucks and other vehicles that don’t have much clearance, he said. One vehicle was damaged a few weeks ago after hitting an ice hole at night, he said.
“When it fell into the hole, it dented the wheel itself, the rim,” Rochin said. “We had to do alignment and a wheel replace.”
Rochin said the eastern and southern parts of Anchorage seem to have the worst conditions. But things are improving as temperatures rise, he said.
City and state road crews plow and grade different roads in Anchorage. The state handles major roads like the Seward and Glenn highways and A and C streets, along with much of Northern Lights Boulevard. The city plows all others.
Shannon McCarthy, a spokeswoman with the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities, said it’s been a challenging winter, but not unlike other winters. She said the state is making big strides in pushing snow berms off roads.
She said relief is on the horizon as warmer weather arrives.
“We’re getting long in the tooth when it comes to the winter of ‘21 and ‘22,” she said. “The next thing is we’ll have to deal with getting the gravel off the road and controlling dust.”
Belz, with the city, said he needs two warm days in a row.
“If we can luck out and get a couple of warm days, we can get caught up in four or five days,” he said.