Pothole Principles

Preventing small problems from growing bigger takes on significance in today's economy.
by | May 2010

Growing up in a Canadian city – Winnipeg, Manitoba, to be exact – where extreme temperature swings and lots of moisture wreaked havoc on streets, it was easy to explain a late arrival at a meeting with a shrug and a little bit of folk wisdom: "There are only two seasons in this town – winter and construction." The comment was often met with knowing nods by those living through the same bumpy, detoured trips and traffic congestion as the city filled potholes that could swallow subcompacts whole.

It was simply the cost of doing business for the municipality, along with a snow-clearing budget that always seemed at least one storm short of full funding. But such is life in a northern town.

Hundreds of miles to the south and east, the District of Columbia recovered this year from a particularly severe winter with its second annual "Potholepalooza," during which the capital city doubled and tripled its road crews to temporarily patch a record number of potholes. From March 5 to April 5, District Department of Transportation crews filled more than 7,600 potholes throughout the city, including 578 on St. Patrick's Day, the most in a single day.

But are potholes unavoidable? That was the question in Fort Wayne, Ind., where the city got in front of the problem with a solution that percolated up from the people who knew the roads best. Former Mayor Graham Richard, a long-time advocate of bringing quality management disciplines to government, had set a goal of reducing response time for filling potholes from four days to within 24 hours of the time they were reported. The challenge came with the promise of a performance bonus.

Richard recalls how a city worker recast the problem by asking about root causes. "Why do we have potholes?" asked the city maintenance worker, who had an answer to his own question. "We have so much freezing and thawing, and we haven't been maintaining the pavement. Let's do better crack sealing. Let's fill the cracks between May and October – the nonfreezing time – so that when we do have freeze and thaw, it will reduce the amount of breakup of asphalt, and we'll have fewer potholes."

The plan worked. Fewer potholes were filled faster. Crews blew past the original performance goal by reducing response times from four days to four hours. It improved service and saved the city money, and bonus checks followed.

At issue is preventive maintenance. Filling cracks, fixing leaks, painting exposed wood, replacing broken window panes and changing oil are mundane and relatively inexpensive measures that extend the serviceable life of useful things. In budgetary compromises, such maintenance is often deferred to stretch available funds to meet maintenance level costs, which reflect mandatory caseload, inflation and other legally unavoidable expenses. Preventive maintenance may be legally avoidable – but the bill will inevitably come due.

In their most recent book, If We Can Put a Man on the Moon, authors (and regular Governing.com contributors) Bill Eggers and John O'Leary focus on getting big things done in government. We're attracted to these so-called game changers because of that very quality – they matter now and over time.

But government must also get myriad little things done too, and its reputation stands or falls on how well it executes the small stuff. Sustainable communities must surely make bold moves as they climb out of the recession, but a long-term repair bill will be waiting if they come at the expense of a little routine maintenance.

Years before a presidential candidate promised change you could believe in, a national car maintenance chain declared, "Some people want to change the world. We just want to change your oil." Of course, the two are not mutually exclusive.

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