The temperature had just finished climbing into the 20s, and steam occasionally rose from the three-ton mound of asphalt when Samuel Brack and Elmer Batres stuck their shovels into the middle of the pile in the back of their city-owned truck.
Cars rumbled by, the unmistakable sounds of morning rush hour in Boston unfolding in horn beeps and the rev of engine acceleration. One driver gave a friendly honk and wave as Brack and Batres shoveled the black fill into variously sized fissures, cracks, and indentations on South Huntington Avenue in Jamaica Plain, most of them minor, but a couple of craters appeared capable of busting a tire. The duo tamped down the material, moved the truck a few yards forward, and started the process all over again.
It’s peak pothole season in Boston and Brack and Batres are on the front lines, delivering the most elementary of city services: making sure the streets are drivable.
They work for a mayor who rode into office on the sweeping rhetoric of change. Mayor Michelle Wu’s big ideas have grabbed headlines: rent stabilization, a push for more equitable public transit, attempts at implementing a vaccination mandate for the city workforce. But Wu also has stressed the importance of everyday constituent services that make any city tick, and which can make or break a city executive.
The longest-serving mayor in Boston’s history, Thomas M. Menino, was known as an “urban mechanic” obsessed with neighborhood details: painting crosswalks, fixing sidewalks, making sure street lights work. And yes, filling potholes. Wu served as an intern in Menino’s administration, and, at her mayoral swearing-in, she made sure to note “it is absolutely necessary in this moment to tackle our biggest challenges by getting the small things right.”
Those small things can add up to serious work. Type in “potholes” in the city’s 311 service request database and more than 15,000 reports pop up, the vast majority of which have been dealt with.
Between Dec. 1 and Feb. 15, residents lodged 2,252 service requests related to potholes in the city, a number that reflects all 311-generated requests that included the word “pothole,” not the actual number of potholes in the city nor the number that have been patched, according to a Wu administration spokesman. The city’s pothole crews work off both the 311-generated requests as well as road irregularities reported by city inspectors.
Of those, more than 1,500 pothole-related repair requests were sent to Boston’s public works department, 440 found their way to Boston Water and Sewer, and more than 160 were sent to various state entities.
For that two-and-a-half-month period, Brack and Batres and their colleagues at the public works department addressed 1,200 pothole complaints; 300 pothole requests remain open.
Filling all those potholes is a physically vigorous job. Brack and Batres estimate their two-man patch crew can on average fill between 30 and 45 potholes a day. For Brack, the work means he can skip a gym membership. Who needs the weight room when you can fill 120 potholes in a single day, as Brack says he once did. The constant motion of the work helps them both shrug off the cold. They typically tackle a day’s bumpy terrain by mending main roads first, before making their way to the side roads.
A stretch of South Huntington, in front of the Jamaica Plain VA Medical Center, was fairly busy on a recent morning. Brack gave an unvarnished assessment of the state of the roadway: “This whole street’s a complaint.”
“It’s always endless, but hey, you’re helping out the community,” said the 31-year-old from Lower Mills, of the work.
Endless is a good word for it. Indeed, complaining about potholes in the midst of a winter that won’t end is a New England tradition, like paying for overpriced lobster rolls or grousing about the Red Sox’ perceived shortcomings. And the logs of the 311-generated city complaints offer a window into Boston’s extensive pothole discourse.
“Huge pothole in front of Catholic Memorial school at light and another just a few feet straight away on baker [sic],” read one recent report of an issue at 419 Baker St. in West Roxbury. “[G]etting dangerous to avoid hole and cars coming from the other direction at night its [sic] scary.”
Another hole at 472 Talbot Ave. in Dorchester warranted all caps: “LARGE POTHOLE.”
A pavement break at 56 Wyman St. in Jamaica Plain recently prompted the threat of legal action: “I have reported this pothole before, as has my neighbor . . . . You have failed to fix it. Today my wife stepped into the pothole and twisted her ankle while carrying our toddler. They both fell into the road in front an approaching truck, who thankfully stopped in time. I’m now taking her to a hospital. Fix this. NOW. You will be hearing from our lawyer, because we will be suing for negligence.”
Sometimes, residents will provide helpful geographical cues for the patch crew. “Huge pothole on the Dunkin Donut side,” read one complaint from Southampton Street.
One person described a crater at the intersection of Charlesgate East and Beacon Street as “like a sinkhole. It’s getting worse by the week.”
As one county engineer from Ohio explains, potholes are caused by the expansion and contraction of water after it has entered into the ground under the pavement. Water expands as it freezes, cracking and weakening pavement in the process. Once the ice melts, the pavement contracts, which can lead to gaps — and those gaps can trap water. The repetition of freezing and thawing water can continue to weaken the road surface, meaning New England’s notoriously unpredictable weather presents ripe conditions for potholes. Salt can exacerbate the road-weakening process.
Cars, trucks, and snowplows add to the wear-and-tear and can cause chunks of the road, already eroded by the elements, to break loose. And thus, a pothole is born.
Potholes are a legal reality for the city, too. People can file a claim against the city if they are injured or their property is damaged by a pothole on a city-controlled street. During the last two years, the city has received about 350 legal claims that involve potholes, bringing that city’s total payout for pothole-related damage to just above $12,200, according to the city.
Although potholes occupy a lot of Boston’s collective mental space, fixing them amounts to a tiny drop in the city’s budgetary bucket: During the last fiscal year, the city went through just under 800 tons of asphalt to fix potholes, which cost $50,000, according to the public works department.
In 2019, there were more than 16,000 requests for pothole repair, of which more than 12,700 were closed. The number of requests fell substantially in 2020, the first year of the pandemic, to 9,460, of which 7,340 were closed. Last year, there were 9,868 requests and the city was able to close 6,539 of them.
During the two-and-half-month period since Dec. 1, Boston’s top three neighborhoods for pothole service requests were Dorchester with 253, Roxbury with 186, and Jamaica Plain with 177.
In Boston, crews fill the potholes on days when it’s not raining or snowing, or on days when snow has already been removed from the road. The state of the pavement is usually worst shortly after a winter storm, said Brack.
“It opens up with the water,” said Brack.
Brack and Batres picked up the asphalt at a Hyde Park plant that morning. Their territory includes Fenway and parts of Roxbury, Dorchester, Jamaica Plain, and Mission Hill. For Brack, the worst road in the district is a stretch of Warren Street in Roxbury.
After tamping down one area of pavement, Brack took a photo and uploaded it to a city app as proof that they serviced a pothole complaint. The acrid smell of asphalt wafted over from the bed of the city pickup, and every so often, the duo paused to apply a chemical that helps ensure the asphalt does not stick to their tools. Brack acknowledged that sometimes, they patch the same pothole multiple times in one season.
“There’s a couple in this stretch I’ve already done,” he noted. ”We can only help by filling it. We can’t prevent the water from getting in there.”
Eventually, an entire street will be repaved but that is a separate process managed by a separate division of public works. In the meantime, there are Brack and Batres, and their colleagues, ready to perform patchwork.
“It’s a good feeling,” said Batres, a 47-year-old Roslindale father of two who emigrated from El Salvador in 1995, after filling one pothole. “I might drive these roads later.”