For city pothole squad, there's no spring break

Paul Pettet, at the helm of the Pothole Killer, says his biggest issue is guiding the truck to targets on narrow one-way streets. Friday's list of potholes to be filled was 17 pages long.
Paul Pettet, at the helm of the Pothole Killer, says his biggest issue is guiding the truck to targets on narrow one-way streets. Friday's list of potholes to be filled was 17 pages long. (RON TARVER / Staff Photographer)
Posted: May 27, 2014

Like many Philadelphians, Paul Pettet spent much of Friday and Saturday, the unofficial first weekend of summer, driving.

Except Pettet wasn't headed for the Shore or the Poconos. The 27-year city Streets Department employee was pushing on the gas pedal with his salt-stained work boots, guiding a six-wheel patcher truck down East Luzerne Street in the Juniata Park section, patching up the wounds of a brutal winter - the potholes.

Philadelphia's second-snowiest winter on record (68 inches of snowfall) left its roads looking like the moon, full of craters, and its heavy-equipment operators with hefty paychecks but little social or family life. Since January, the Streets Department highway division has filled 35,000 potholes - more than twice the average for an entire year - with many more to go.

"I don't think we will ever catch up," Pettet said as he demonstrated Friday morning how he controls the flow of fresh asphalt from the cab of a truck nicknamed the Pothole Killer. "There will always be work."

So much work that his boss, Stephen W. Lorenz, the city's chief highway engineer, predicts many crews will have to work every Saturday through July. That is likely to make a pothole of its own - in the city's overtime budget, already battered by blizzards. Since the last snowstorm, in March, the city has spent $64,450 on overtime for fixing potholes.

Filling a hole costs just $22, but it adds up. This month, Streets Department Commissioner David Perri asked City Council for a $6.3 million transfer to pay for "the accumulated costs of fighting the winter storms" plus street repairs. As he said Friday, "The effects of last winter didn't end with the last snowfall."

The thousands of potholes have not only jarred drivers and created hazards - "Contact A Philadelphia Pothole Trip And Fall Attorney," one law firm suggests - they have also delayed the repaving usually done in spring on aging and damaged roads.

"We are nowhere near where we should be with paving," Lorenz said. ". . . Usually this time of year, potholes are on the back burner."

Potholes can be filled by the traditional method - an asphalt paving crew, raking and compacting in a hot coal emulsion mixture - or by one of two patcher trucks the city rents each year. Little wonder the truck is dubbed the Pothole Killer - it can zap a hole up to two feet wide in less than a minute.

On Friday morning, Pettet, 57, in jeans and a Harley-Davidson T-shirt, was ready to map his latest pothole-killing route, based on the daily list.

Each morning, Michael Benezet, a highway assistant manager, prints out that list, based mostly on complaints. They come through the city's 311 call center, which forwards them to the Streets Department.

Friday's list was 17 pages.

No matter - it was in the hands of Pettet, a tall, lean Army reservist, who has been driving some version of the patcher for two decades.

The list included potholes in Old City, Germantown, and the far Northeast. Pettet comes equipped - he plugs his own GPS device onto the front windshield, and has his phone in case he can't find a street, but that's rare.

His biggest issue is guiding the truck to targets on narrow one-way streets. "I will do it next to cars," he said. "I feel that confident I won't hit a car."

The truck holds about four tons of material to fill the holes. He controls the output with about a dozen switches and a joystick inside the truck cabin.

"I could do it blindfolded," Pettet said.

He works in a Streets Department shop where many love their jobs - they get to ride real-life Tonka Trucks for a living and are trained to operate the various trucks and heavy equipment needed to keep the streets open.

"We have a very versatile workforce," Lorenz said.

Of 220 field workers in the highway division, Pettet is one of 15 to 20 licensed and trained to operate the patcher. "It's a good job," he says.

While potholes spare no neighborhood, some roads are worse than others, Benezet said. Before Lincoln Drive was repaved, it was crater-filled. "We would go there and it would be lined with hubcaps," he said - adding that he picked up two hubcaps for his wife's Toyota Camry.

The crews bring the hubcaps back to their shop. And their collection is sure to grow - even in late May, more than 100 new pothole complaints are coming in daily.

Pettet and Lorenz hope the rate dwindles by midsummer. But the lingering impact of so much freezing and thawing means potholes will keep popping up before another winter arrives.

And then it's back to overdrive and overtime for the crews who must also salt and plow.

During winter storms, "everyone divorces themselves from their family," Lorenz said. "These guys sacrifice a lot to keep the city open."

Pettet's boots have the stains to prove it.


cvargas@phillynews.com

215-854-5520

@InqCVargas

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