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Gridlock Guy: The puzzling pothole recurrences

By Doug Turnbull, For the AJC #atlanta-ga

GDOT crews are very familiar with potholes. Every so often they have to pace traffic to fill a hole that the constant grind of Atlanta traffic has opened. Most of these instances are random, but there never is a great time to fix them. Some potholes begin forming, but are small enough to see repairs wait until evenings or weekends. But when the holes open big enough to damage vehicles, crews shift into emergency mode and the repairs know no rush hour bounds.

Several such emergency repairs have created headaches for Atlanta commuters and two of them strangely didn’t stay fixed. The closures for the two unusual holes each took longer than the average emergency repair.

I-75/northbound in two different spots in Kennesaw has been a hot mess in this regard. Crews had to block four left lanes on I-75/northbound at I-575 on Monday, September, 14th, to fill a pothole. The repair, which started around 2 p.m. and lasted past 6 p.m., absolutely drilled I-75 back into Marietta. The simultaneous 18-car crash on I-285 in Sandy Springs overshadowed this, but the delays on I-75 were worse.

But just past this initial road failure, there has been a nagging pothole I-75/northbound at Barrett Parkway that has seen extended repairs at least three times in the last two weeks. The hole has kept opening in the right lane just past the bridge where I-75 passes over Barrett Parkway, right where the pavement meets the grass.

On Friday, September 25th, the crew had to close the right lane at 9 a.m. and had to work in that lane into Saturday. A compounding factor in that closure was President Trump’s flight into Dobbins AFB in Marietta and motorcade trip down to the Cobb Galleria. Fortunately, the motorcade closures and delays on I-75/northbound for the return trip to Dobbins did not reach far enough north to really combine with the pothole closure delays into Kennesaw.

But that hole opened again on Wednesday, September 30th concurrently with Vice President Pence’s Atlanta visit. Pence’s motorcade went from Dobbins, to an undisclosed Buckhead mansion, to the Cobb Galleria, and back to Dobbins, causing three waves of closures. About halfway through these proceedings, WSB Triple Team Traffic’s Mike Shields and I noticed the delays into Kennesaw again.

I confirmed with GDOT that the pothole indeed had reopened and crews had to block the right lane to repair. That lasted for a couple of hours and cleared just after I flew over it in the WSB Skycopter. But less than an hour later, Shields and our teammate Alex Williams noticed the pavement opening again. Williams let GDOT know what he was seeing on the WSB Jam Cam and a crew returned to service the void. This repeated problem wasn’t just a coincidence here.

“The shoulder had to be widened two inches in order to utilize it as a lane during bridge work in the center lane of the interstate. Using it for travel enabled us to maintain two lanes of travel without splitting traffic around both sides of the work zone,” GDOT District Engineer Kathy Zahul told the AJC and 95.5 WSB.

“During the widening, the contractor encountered concrete and a duct bank that houses the fiber for our ITS communications. We now believe water is being trapped between that duct bank and the widened section. When traffic runs on pavement that has water in the layers beneath it, the flexing causes movement that makes the asphalt develop cracks that get worse over time. The water is not noticeable on the surface, so the issue was hidden until recently,” Zahul explained. That fiber cable is what powers GDOT’s cameras.

This explanation accounts for the problems at Barrett Parkway. But the initial one back near I-575 was likely due to the typical aging of infrastructure, a far less unique issue. It has not opened up since its initial repair.

Another pothole opened up at least twice in the right lane of the work zone on I-285/westbound (Outer Loop) west of Ashford Dunwoody Road in DeKalb County. Crews had to work there in extended bouts to fill another hole in a shoulder that construction lane-shifting made into a lane. The wear and tear on pavement not intended to be driven over that much is likely the cause. And the lane shifts over the seams in between lanes continue to open small potholes all through that area.

“Think about putting lightbulbs in your house: not one seems to burn out. They all burn out at once,” GDOT spokesperson Natalie Dale said, explaining that increased focus on the roads by work crews and an aging infrastructure all factor into why several failures have recently appeared. “In my many years at GDOT, it’s sort of ironic that it happens that you see. Bad things happen in threes.”

Dale encouraged the motoring public to help the state fix these holes even faster. “If anyone sees anything, we want to them to dial 5-1-1 to report conditions on our roadways.”

We also encourage all of you to call our WSB Traffic Center with an easy push of the button on our WSB Radio App or our Triple Team Traffic Alerts App. In fact, go ahead and save this number: 404-897-7358. Outside of GDOT or an area 911 center, we are Atlanta’s only 24-Hour Traffic Center.

A freak instance, combined with some extra scrutiny, aging infrastructure, and bad luck have all factored into the seeming increase in potholes on the Atlanta freeways. The only thing drivers can do is keep their eyes open for the problems and remain patient in the delays behind the closures.