22nd Ward potholes were slated for fix prior to alderman’s stunt, city says

Chicago DOT has filled record number of potholes this year—750,000 so far

By Mary Cirincione

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The city’s Potholes Patched map shows that the 22nd Ward received more attention from CDOT crews last week than surrounding areas. Each blue dot shows a pothole repaired by CDOT between Sept. 23, 2014 and Oct. 2, 2014.

Ald. Ricardo Munoz of Chicago’s 22nd Ward grabbed headlines last week when he invited news cameras to watch him patch a pothole with asphalt he had scavenged from a nearby construction site. Airing his frustrations over the number of open potholes in his ward, Munoz accused the city of dragging its feet on pothole repair.

But the city is now firing back, arguing that Munoz’s ward has actually received a disproportionate amount of attention when compared with surrounding areas. And a city map showing all of the potholes repaired within the last seven days seems to back that up.

“The day he actually did that, we had already assigned—by happenstance—a crew to that area,” said Peter Scales, spokesman for the Chicago Department of Transportation. “It actually would have been nice if they had caught our crews on camera too.” The city’s Potholes Patched map shows that CDOT filled 14 potholes inside Munoz’s district in the last seven days and an additional two potholes nearby.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel even weighed in on Munoz’s attention-getting strategy in response to a question at a news conference: “I don’t know his idea, but we’re going to do what we need to, to make sure the streets—whether they are main streets or neighboring streets—are passable for all the residents in the city of Chicago.”

Munoz’s ward encompasses Little Village on Chicago’s West Side, a predominantly Hispanic neighborhood. There were 75 open calls for pothole repair service in his ward Sept. 24, the day news cameras filmed Munoz in action. Scales said that figure is a lot lower than requests from neighboring areas. “That was the fourth lowest number of active requests of all 50 wards,” Scales said. The city tracks the number of pothole complaints from residents who record locations on the city’s Pothole Tracker website as well as by calling 311.

CDOT said it has fixed 6,300 potholes in Munoz’s ward since January—that’s 8 percent of a staggering 750,000 potholes that the city has repaired so far this year. “So we’re paying a lot of attention to his ward, we have been very active,” Scales said.

To put that last number in perspective, the city filled 630,000 potholes in 2013. The sudden spike in potholes is completely weather related, experts say, because last winter was the coldest one Chicago had seen in 30 years. Potholes develop when moisture gets into a crack of pavement and freezes. It expands, ultimately widening the crack and causing a portion of asphalt to break away. “This winter was absolutely brutal, it was the perfect weather for creating potholes. We’ve never seen anything like this,” Scales said.

Chicago residents have noticed, and they’re not pleased.

Joseph Schwieterman, the director of DePaul University’s Chaddick Institute for Metropolitan Development, explained Chicago residents’ frustrations this way: “The public finds the pothole problem maddening because the fix seems so easy—you just haul some asphalt in a truck, and bingo, the problem is fixed.”

But it takes time, according to Scales. If crews see one pothole, they’re required to check the whole block. On average, each CDOT crew can fill between 200 and 300 potholes a day. “And for every call we get, we probably fill about 10 potholes,” Scales added.

The fact remains that patching potholes is only a temporary fix. CDOT is actively focusing on resurfacing Chicago streets, with plans to complete 355 miles by the end of 2014. “We have most of our staff doing actual resurfacing right now,” Scales added.

The resurfacing work includes 11 residential blocks inside Munoz’s ward, all slated for repair over the next few weeks.

The alderman did not respond to repeated requests for comment.