There is a quantifiable cost to potholes. According to AAA, approximately 44 million drivers in the United States required vehicle repairs from pothole damage in 2022, paying an average of $406.
“In many parts of the country, winter roads will likely give way to pothole-laden obstacle courses,” a AAA spokesperson said. “When a vehicle hits a pothole with any kind of force, the tires, wheels and suspension get the brunt of the impact and fixing any of those items is pricey.”
But there is more to the story of potholes, which in many ways represent government at the most fundamental level. As Pete Buttigieg, now U.S. secretary of transportation and former mayor of South Bend, Ind., once surmised: “If I’m plowing the snow and filling in potholes, then I’m a good mayor, and if we fail to do that, I’m not.”
Which brings us to an interesting news item: Washington has been deemed the worst state in the nation for potholes. A USA Today analysis of Google searches for pothole-related terms from 2020-23 was used to determine where potholes are most prominent in the minds of citizens.
Granted, this is not scientific. And it’s not surprising that potholes are more likely to be a concern in colder, northern states, where winter weather causes pavement to crack and eventually create tire-engulfing divots. Washington was followed by Minnesota and Michigan as the states with the worst pothole problems.
But potholes reflect the priorities of a government and a populace. They are a local issue that impacts nearly every resident, regardless of social or economic standing; they are universal, found with varying severity in every jurisdiction; and they are the responsibility of government at both the state and local level. As a study from Harvard University details, “Potholes not only tell you about the state of your infrastructure, they also tell you about the nature of participation in your city.”
Some cities have adopted apps specifically for residents to report potholes. In Vancouver, the city’s website site instructs: “Report problems involving potholes, street lights, traffic signal timing, standing water in streets, water leaks in streets or hydrants, graffiti on city property, missing manhole covers, sight-obscuring vegetation in public rights of way, and other concerns using our service request form.”
Vancouver residents, by the way, are not overwhelmingly concerned about potholes. Spokane, Yakima and Seattle ranked among the cities where road damage is most frequently searched.
But Washington’s national ranking should give pause to elected officials. Secretary of Transportation Roger Millar has spent much time decrying a lack of road maintenance throughout the state, warning that our transportation system is “on a glidepath to failure.”
Millar has detailed years of inadequate funding for repairs to roads and bridges, creating a cycle of decaying infrastructure. “Our backlog on pavement is about $350 million a year,” he told news outlet Washington State Standard. “If there’s been a change to the positive, we are talking about preservation and maintenance. But to get the votes to pass the bill, (lawmakers) are also putting a whole bunch of projects in there that people want around the state.”
Indeed, Washington’s state government in recent years has focused on grand ambitions relating to climate change, housing and police reform. Many local jurisdictions have followed suit.
But sometimes, the things that are most important to constituents can be found at the ground level.