When is a pothole a pothole?

While campaigning to be mayor, Shirley Franklin made the arguably impossible promise to fill any pothole reported to the city within 72 hours. But she didn't explain to her future constituents the fine print:

The city must first determine whether the alleged pothole is in fact a pothole as defined by the Atlanta Department of Public Works.

That's where things get tricky. According to Webster's, a pothole is "a pot-shaped hole in a road surface." But the more narrow definition put forth by the city describes a pothole as "a section of a road that has become recessed due to water and or weather damage, or aged asphalt that has begun to crumble."

The difference between Webster's pothole and the city's pothole, though nearly impossible for the average observer to discern, is crucial when it comes to the timeliness of getting said holes filled.

Last month, CL reported 10 gaping holes to the city of Atlanta's pothole hotline. The idea was to measure how long it would take Franklin's "Pothole Posse" to respond to the complaints. On Sept. 28, CL reported that only one of the holes had been filled within a week.

But on Oct. 3, Department of Public Works Commissioner David E. Scott sent CL a letter explaining that nine of the 10 holes CL reported were not actually potholes.

Public Works spokeswoman Pamela Wilson says CL's assumption that any old hole in the road is a pothole is a common one. Roughly half of the complaints that the mayor's Pothole Posse receives are for holes that don't fall within the city's definition of a pothole. Instead, the holes are utility cuts, low-lying manhole covers, or dips caused by subsurface disturbances such as leaky sewer pipes, Wilson says.

"A lot of times, [a hole caused by] a subsurface issue is larger [than a pothole]," she says. "If you see a big dip 20 feet in diameter, odds are that it is a subsurface issue."

An actual pothole, according to a Public Works leaflet on "the birth of a pothole," begins to form when snow or rain seeps through the cracks in the road surface. The moisture then freezes, causing the ground to expand and push up the pavement. When the temperature rises, the ground returns to its normal level but the pavement remains raised, creating a hollow underneath. When vehicles drive over it, the pavement crumbles and falls into the hollow space.

Wilson says the Public Works Department usually fixes actual potholes in a timely fashion, often within three days. But the subsurface issues can take much longer — often weeks or months.

"Unfortunately, we realize that to residents and drivers it doesn't matter whether it is a pothole or a subsurface issue," Wilson says. "But we just want to educate people so that they don't think that we're negligent. The ones that are potholes, we generally get those fixed. The others are more complicated."

To report what you think might be a pothole in the city of Atlanta, call 404-POTHOLE.

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