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March 02, 2015

Hit a pothole on the right street, and city may help fix your car

Pennsylvania's comparatively mild winters make it a prime spot for potholes

Infrastructure Roads
022515_Pothole_Carroll.jpg Thom Carroll/for PhillyVoice

A pothole on Girard Avenue at 11th Street.

Philadelphia, be warned.

We are heading into pothole season. And which pothole chews up your tire can make all the difference on whether the city will help pay for your repairs. 

Strike a pothole on a city-controlled street and Philadelphia may pay for some of the damage.  From July 2013 through June 2014, the city saw 154 damage claims - settling 41 of them, denying 86 others, with the balance still pending. 

Paid claims totaled about $30,000, according to city officials.  Likely because last year's pothole season was so bad, there were more claims paid out last year than the previous year.

But state roads located within city limits, such as Route 1 or Interstate 76, are exempt from liability. Damage sustained on state roads is considered an “act of God." Basically, the location of the pothole determines whether a claim can be filed.

For example, a motorist who hits a crater on Market Street in Center City, a state street has no legal standing to file a claim for damage. Had that motorist been able to make a turn onto 18th Street before hitting a pothole, however, a claim is possible.

Not that getting a claim paid by the city is easy.

“In order (for the city) to be liable the [person] must prove that there was a reasonably foreseeable risk of the kind of damage that occurred,” said Mark McDonald, spokesman for Mayor Michael Nutter. In addition, the person would have to prove the city knew about the problem but didn’t act to fix it.

Drivers can send claims to the city’s Office of Risk Management asking them to pay as long as proof, such as picture of the damage and any insurance claim, are submitted as documentation.

Road damage can add up to $2,000 in repair costs over a car’s lifespan, according to insurers quoted by AAA auto club. 


Potholes are nothing new. They form on the streets of any city far enough north to achieve regular freezing temperatures in winter. The force of water expanding can heave up sections of the road and transform small cracks in the asphalt into deep divots or even craters. They tend to get worse as spring arrives.

“Right now, this is the season where potholes are born,” said Charles Metzger, a spokesman with the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation.

Metzger said that, from December 2014 through Feb. 25, PennDOT used 1,423 tons of asphalt for street repairs. That is about half the amount of asphalt used during the same period last year, an especially bad year for potholes, but substantially more than two years ago.

“Last year was such an anomaly,” said Metzger. “Normally, we don’t have that much patching to do.”

Spring tends to be the worst season for potholes because those months fuel the rapid freeze-thaw cycle that allows water to flow into gaps and then expand at night when the weather drops below freezing. The amount of precipitation counts, too.

Ahmed Faheem, a civil engineering professor at Temple University, came to the Philadelphia area after working in the much-colder-on-average Madison, Wisconsin. Last year, Madison's especially cold winter season included 38 days with at or below zero temperatures, according to a local newspaper. Last year, the lowest temperature in Philadelphia was 4 degrees, according to the website weather-warehouse.

In Madison, “once water freezes under the pavement, it stays frozen almost the entire winter,” said Faheem. “But here, we go through many cycles because we have a milder winter.”

That’s why potholes can be so prevalent. Faheem said last year was particularly harsh because of the amount of water and snow on the ground that could melt, seep into cracks, and then refreeze and cause damage. This year, with less precipitation, and a milder winter with only a few weeks of real cold, there may be fewer potholes.


Damage from potholes is not always immediately obvious to drivers, according to Bob Kramer of Kelley's Auto. He said some customers will bring in their car and do not link their damage to potholes.

"They just say 'Oh, I have a flat' and then all of a sudden I say "Oh look, your [tire's] side wall is blown out,'" said Kramer. "And they go, 'Oh.'"

This time of year, he said, he gets at least one pothole-related tire blowout a day and additional business when motorist have to repair bent rims.

For motorists, however, potholes can translate into major inconvenience and expense.

Frequently, car insurance deductibles are higher than the cost to replace a tire or do other minor repairs, meaning out-of-pocket expenses. Plus, filing an insurance claim may lead to an increase in future premiums.

The city and state said they try to deal with potholes that are reported within about three days. They also solicit the public’s help in finding potholes by providing a phone number, 1-800-FIX-ROAD.

The website of the Philadelphia Streets Department reports it has already filled about 7,800 potholes so far this season.

Metzger said crews are out daily, working to fill them when problems are reported.

"We can't forecast potholes," Metzger said. "They pop up randomly and indiscriminately."