An excruciating pothole season is taking its toll on Maine vehicles and drivers’ wallets.

Potholes show up on Stuart Street in Portland on Wednesday as cars pass on nearby Forest Avenue. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Some Portland-area mechanics say the number of vehicles damaged by potholes and frost heaves has skyrocketed this year, and highway agencies are getting more complaints than usual.

“It is ridiculous,” said Mark Duval, owner of Duval’s Service Center on Park Avenue in South Portland.

Repeated freezing and thawing, plus big rainstorms this winter created perfect conditions for potholes and other road damage, Duval said. Demand for repairs to shocks, struts, ball joints and tires has gone up about 4 percent from the same time last year, he said.

“Not only are more people coming in, but the damage is worse, too,” Duval said.

Local and state transportation agencies have scrambled to patch holes as complaints have flooded in.

The Maine Department of Transportation normally gets 20 or 30 complaints about potholes a month this time of year, said Brian Burne, the state highway maintenance engineer. This year, it is closer to 40 complaints a month.

“We’ve been doing a lot of patching, trying to keep up with it,” he said.

As of mid-March, the state had spent about $800,000 filling potholes, about $60,000 more than at the same time in 2018, Burne said, noting that increased material prices may help explain that discrepancy, since the state is using about the same amount of asphalt and other filler.

“This time of year is always tough, there are a lot of complaints about the roads,” he said.

RAISING AWARENESS

Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, is getting complaints, too.

“This has been a much worse year than many recent years,” Diamond said Wednesday. “It really is pothole hell out in rural areas and city streets.”

Constituents have called repeatedly to complain about damage and he’s witnessed drivers swerve in and out of travel lanes to dodge gouges in the road, Diamond said. Potholes are a serious enough issue that he raised it to Maine Transportation Commissioner Bruce Van Note during a department budget hearing at the State House on Tuesday.

Josh Byrnes, manager of 3G’s Tire and Auto in Portland, shows the uneven wear on tires caused by an alignment problem from the car hitting potholes. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

“It seems like an extraordinary year,” Diamond said. “I know it is extraordinary for the people who are contacting me. I just had to raise awareness, we need to take notice and make an extra effort on this.”

Portland has received 494 complaints about potholes so far this year, more than the 434 complaints last winter.

“I imagine we’ll get a bunch more by the end of the season,” public works director Chris Branch said. One or two highway crews have been out patching holes two or three shifts a day for the past month or so, he said.

Under Maine’s “24-hour” law, municipalities can be held liable up to $6,000 for vehicle damage from a road defect, like a pothole, if it was notified of the issue at least 24 hours in advance and failed to correct it.

Vehicle owners had filed 20 claims with the city of Portland as of Wednesday, according to spokeswoman Jessica Grondin. Last year, 27 claims were filed in the same time period, out of 40 total claims for the year.

The city paid out two claims in 2018 and none so far this year, Grondin said.

THE PHYSICS OF POTHOLES

Potholes are created when moisture gets underneath the road surface and freezes, pushing pavement upward. When temperatures rise and the ground thaws, it leaves a bubble on the road surface that can be cracked by vehicles driving over it.

Age, inadequate maintenance and overuse of roads make them more vulnerable to developing potholes.

The majority of drivers in a 2016 AAA survey reported paying $250 or less to fix pothole damage, but about 6 percent reported paying more than $1,000.

Josh Byrnes, manager at 3Gs Tire and Auto Service in Portland, said it cost $650 to fix a rim, tire and lower ball joint on his pickup truck after he hit a pothole on Forest Avenue at Woodfords Corner. That puts him in the same camp as a growing number of customers. The Veranda Street auto shop is getting 15 or 20 cars a week with pothole damage, about 7 percent of the 30 vehicles a day it works on.

Seasonal road damage seems to have gotten worse in recent years, Byrnes added.

“It is literally brutal with potholes the last two years,” he said.

But Jim Galvin, manager at Don Foshay’s Discount Tire and Alignment on Main Street in South Portland, said 2019 has been a pretty normal year, in terms of pothole damage.

In the last month, about a dozen customers have come in with wheel and tire damage, Galvin said. There are undoubtedly some bad potholes out there and some customers have hit the same divot more than once before it is patched.

But in almost five decades in the tire business, it’s nothing new for Galvin.

“In close to 48 years I’ve been doing this, every spring it is like this,” he said.