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City enlists the ‘pothole killer’ in fight to fix damaged streets

A New Jersey Department Transportaticrew patches up potholes by dumping mixture tar rocks inhole with use specially equipped truck. |

A New Jersey Department of Transportation crew patches up potholes by dumping a mixture of tar and rocks into the hole with the use of a specially equipped truck. | The Star-Ledger

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Updated: November 16, 2011 1:24AM

Chicago will enlist mechanical reinforcements in the never-ending war on potholes: a machine known as the “pothole killer” that can fill a hole in 60 seconds with a much smaller crew.

Three years after a test with a different pothole-filling machine failed miserably, newly appointed Transportation Commissioner Gabe Klein has leased four trucks with an improved technology — at a cost of $50,000 a month. He is hoping for a different result.

The “pothole killer” is a truck with a telescopic arm attached to the front grill. The arm blows out debris and moisture from the pothole, then fills it with asphalt-patching material. The entire operation can be completed in less than a minute with one or two people.

Currently, the city fixes potholes using 20 three- or four-person crews during winter months and four or five such crews in the summer. The crews arrive at a pothole, use shovels to fill the hole with patching material from a dump truck, then tamp it down by hand. Since Jan. 1, CDOT crews have filled 450,000 potholes, 20,000 more than in all of 2010.

Klein, the former transportation commissioner in Washington, D.C., said the pothole killer worked like a charm for him in the nation’s capital and he’s hoping it will do the same in Chicago.

If it works, the city will lease even more of the trucks, freeing city employees for street-paving duties.

“Storms are getting worse and worse. We have to be prepared for worse and wet conditions, temperature fluctuations and snowstorms. We need supplemental resources when potholes are really bad,” Klein said.

“Pothole killers are an excellent way to get on top of them within 60 days. We have to get on top of potholes in our alleys. My goal is that, by sometime in mid-October to be down to zero overdue customer service requests for potholes citywide and show that we can do it with in-house crews leveraging technology.”

In Washington, Klein celebrated the end of winter with a program he called” Pothole-pallooza.” Residents and motorists were encouraged to send via email, Facebook and Twitter pictures of potholes and their locations to City Hall. A mix of pothole killer trucks and city crews then descended on a designated area and filled all the potholes. Klein said he hopes to launch a similar program in Chicago next year.

Klein categorically denied that pothole killers would set the stage to shrink the city work force.

“It’s a morale-buster when you’re always behind and can never catch up. This allows our crews to catch up. If anything we’ll boost morale and we can put them on repaving,” Klein said.

“We’ve had to move people off resurfacing to potholes because we have so many potholes left over from winter. We don’t want to be in that situation. We want them to focus on paving at this time of year. We have so much work they could be doing. Crews have shrunk over the years. The problem is too much work and too few people.”

Lou Phillips, business manager of Laborers Union Local 1001, questioned why the city was spending $50,000 a month to test a technology that failed in 2008.

“The gravel blew out of the machine and projected out. You couldn’t use it with people on the street. It damaged vehicles. . . . People had to clean up after it. It was just a mess,” Phillips said.

Transportation Department spokesman Brian Steele acknowledged that the 2008 test was a failure because potholes were not filled “as quickly or as cleanly” as the city expected. Material used at that time also created “debris left behind that had to be cleaned up,” he said.

But Steele insisted that the new machine is nothing like the old one.

“This is a different vendor, different truck and different materials. It’s apples and oranges,” he said.

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