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Metro

With wintry weather, scourge of potholes plague region

Potholes, like the one above on East Broadway, can claim a hubcap, as one did on Memorial Drive in Cambridge. A cobblestone history is revealed on Berkeley Street.

John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

Potholes, like the one above on East Broadway in South Boston, can claim a hubcap.

It’s not your imagination: The season’s roller coaster weather has ushered in a full-on pothole outbreak.

“It’s an explosion,” said Mike Dennehy, Boston’s interim commissioner for public works. “We’re keeping up as best we can, but a lot of them are recurring.”

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This winter’s lower-than-average temperatures, coupled with higher-than-average snowfall, have created the perfect climate to spawn a barrage of teeth-clattering, bone-jarring, axle-cracking potholes across the region. And public works agencies are struggling to keep up.

In Boston, the numbers are stunning. In January in 2012 and again in 2013, Dennehy said, his agency filled about 800 potholes. This January, they have filled about 3,200. In February, they have dealt with another 1,700.

Even the city’s secret weapon against potholes has had enough with the unrelenting pace of battle. Potzilla, a city-owned truck that keeps hot pavement filler from hardening on the way to pothole repair sites — “that’s our MVP,” Dennehy said — broke down earlier this week and may be out of commission until Monday.

A cobblestone history is revealed on Berkeley Street in Boston.

David L Ryan/Globe Staff

A cobblestone history is revealed on Berkeley Street in Boston.

Highways around the state have not escaped the problem. The Massachusetts Department of Transportation, which began counting pothole repairs this year, patched 782 potholes in January. More than 160 more have been reported in February, though the agency has not been able to fix them all. They are waiting for days of not-so-bad weather, and so far, those have been hard to come by.

“We have been in what seems like constant snow and ice operations, and pothole patching requires fairly good weather,” said Sara Lavoie, MassDOT spokeswoman.

Nor have the suburbs been immune. In Newton, for example, the average number of pothole repair requests to the city’s 311 system in January of the previous three years was 55. Last month, by contrast, the system fielded a whopping 361 complaints.

“That’s my life,” said David Turocy, Newton’s public works commissioner. “And that’s only a fraction of what’s out there.”

Blame it on the polar vortex.

The cycle of freezing conditions, followed by a thaw, allow water to seep into small cracks in the pavement and expand, causing the asphalt to buckle beneath the weight of passing cars. Freeze-thaw cycles do not get much more dramatic than they did in early January, when temperatures soared from 1 degree to 56 degrees in a 48-hour period and then dropped back down to 7 degrees.

“It’s the perfect recipe for a pothole,” Dennehy said.

That whiplash of highs and lows set the scene for a record-breaking season of epic pavement craters. Boston residents are not ones to suffer in silence. The mayor’s office has been flooded with requests for pothole repairs via its 24-hour hot line (617-635-4500) and its #spothole Twitter hashtag, as well as the city’s smartphone app for reporting neighborhood issues, Citizens Connect.

“Huuuuuuge pothole,” reported one person at 45 School Street in downtown Boston. Another pointed out a “monster pothole” on the Bowker Overpass offramp in the Fenway.

“Large pothole middle of the road. Fills with murky water to fool unsuspecting pedestrians of its ankle-twisting depth,” wrote one resident of a crater on Bowdoin Avenue in Dorchester.

“The street is trying to destroy my car!!!” came an SOS from Hyde Park. “Please help!!!!”

The scourge of potholes has blanketed Boston’s neighborhoods evenly, Dennehy said. Each of the city’s work teams are scheduled to make about 10 pothole repair stops per shift. But efforts to plow through their jam-packed punch list are often waylaid by more potholes.

“They go out there to respond to one, and they end up finding two to three more,” Dennehy said.

There have been other complications. The closest plant for hot-mix asphalt, used to fill potholes, is closed on nights and weekends, limiting the window to pick up fresh material for repairs.

Work crews have enlisted the help of new asphalt technology, produced by companies UPM and Aquaphalt, that can be carried around in bags or buckets and do not need to be kept warm. Workers use those materials to repair holes on nights and weekends — about 15 percent of the potholes they repair — but the products do not fare as well in snow and frigid temperatures as the hot stuff, Dennehy said.

Then there are the repeat offenders. A pothole at the intersection of Avery and Washington streets in the Theater District has had to be repaired four times since the start of winter.

“It’s ‘Groundhog Day’: We’re returning to the holes we already fixed,” Dennehy said.

For the state, responding to the uptick in gaping asphalt craters has proven an expensive prospect. Officials estimate pothole-filling efforts have cost $420,000 so far this year.

T. Carter Ross, spokesman for the National Asphalt Pavement Association, an organization representing asphalt manufacturers and paving contractors, said other agencies around the East Coast have experienced similar budget-zapping costs.

Those costs won’t be over once the weather warms up. Endemic potholes, even when they are promptly repaired, can weaken the entire roadway. They can also serve as a warning that a thoroughfare is due for warm-weather upkeep.

Dennehy said his agency has been able to perform pothole-filling duties without overtime, which is quite a feat, he said, considering that the workers responsible for pothole repairs are the same workers who salt the roads in advance of this season’s numerous snowstorms. Often, they have dealt with pothole repair and snow preparation in the same shift.

It is a practice familiar to crews in Newton.

“The trick is as soon as you get out of the plow truck, you jump into the hotpot truck,” Turocy said.

Boston officials do not yet know how many drivers have filed claims to the city for damage to their cars after plowing through one of the craggy abysses.

They are hopeful that the count will stay low.

“New Englanders,” Dennehy said, “they know how to swerve.”

Martine Powers can be reached at martine.powers@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @martinepowers.

Correction: An earlier version of this article misidentified the location of a recurring pothole in Boston. The pothole was at the intersection of Avery and Washington streets.

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