*Note: This essay was published in the Colorado Springs Gazette print edition on July 9, 2019. It can also be found online here, an image of the column is included below, as well as the text of the essay.
Nobody likes potholes. Nobody. They’re like the plague that way. Broccoli to kids. Glitter to adults. Kryptonite to Superman. They’re a city’s surface-visible blemishes, which makes them essentially civilization’s pimples. And we shouldn’t tolerate them as we do.
My own back-and-forth commute route is Highway 24, and last week, after realizing how much I’d recently been bouncing over and zig-zagging around potholes, I took to counting them. From Manitou Springs, to get to work on the east end of town, I averaged over sixty each way. That’s nearly three potholes per minute; four per mile. To be fair, I set aside the minnows and only counted the whale-sized tire-threateners that seem to have grown exponentially with our recent rush of rain. Those are the ones necessitating evasive action—clearly dangerous for both the dodger and the dodgee(s).
It’s not just the pace of the potholes, but their locations, that make them so vicious. At the light where Highway 24 East turns left (north) at Powers Boulevard, the inside turn lane includes a whopper that any reasonable driver would avoid. But coming as it does smack in the middle of a turn lane means any maneuver would certainly endanger others in the tightly spaced turn lane. And so, five days a week, even when I want to avoid it, I typically can’t—and so my car’s tire too often absorbs the hit.
That’s a problem in a country where roughly half the population cannot make a $400 payment in an emergency, according to a Federal Reserve survey from 2016. Some cynics will say, ‘that’s their problem.’ But the reality is that nearly all of us are one bad pothole strike away from several spin-off problems associated with such an accident: missed work, high-interest repair loans, and the major stress and annoyance associated with serious repairs to the mode of transportation we’re dependent upon. This is a problem we can’t simply shrug off.
Even more extreme is the potential for a road death. It was made all-too-real this past weekend at the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb, when motorcycle racer Carlin Dunne reportedly hit a bump and was killed in a crash. Of course, he was racing a dangerous course, and had done so for several years before his last ride. He knew the risks and accepted them. But that’s just it—the rest of us non-racers aren’t nearly as skilled as he was. Moreover, those just looking to get from A to B certainly aren’t seeking to set any land-speed records. So why should our local government leave us to face roads with such clear dangers?
The simple explanation is the systemic shoddy deployment of resources at Colorado’s Department of Transportation (CDOT) and the fact that Highway 24 hasn’t been fully resurfaced since 2004 according to CDOT. Closer-in city officials, will, of course, gladly point all ten fingers of blame to CDOT.
But while CDOT certainly deserves the lion’s share, it’s also true that Highway 24 is the femoral artery of this region—perhaps not the highest profile road—but still critical to economic survival. It’s the first road our air-visitors ride in on, and our gateway to recreation in the west. The road’s stretch on the west end of the metro area alone carries over 40,000 cars each day. It’s intolerable that it would go fifteen years between resurfacing and allowed to be left in such a state. All local public officials share culpability here.
Citizens should be outraged. And such anger has undoubtedly fueled the “Pothole Vigilantes” in Oakland, California, as the group has taken it on themselves to fill in many of the city’s gargantuan asphalt craters. Or the pothole artist in Great Britain, who, a few years back, provoked civic action by spray-painting male genitalia around and over potholes to force local city authorities to address the safety hazard. These caped crusaders may not exactly be Batman or Wonder Woman, but they’ve done some good.
Hopefully it doesn’t come to that here. We’re told that help is on the way. CDOT is currently beginning an $11.5 million fix for Highway 24 that will last through the summer.
But if not—if CDOT doesn’t move fast enough—it may well be that we start seeing some of our own homegrown pothole vigilantism spring up here. And that might not be a bad thing.