SoundQs
Seattle Department of Transportation employees Ben Darrett, left, and Koli Makasini, right, fill a pothole on Tuesday, January 8, 2019, at the intersection of South Forest Street and Occidental Avenue South in Seattle.
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Seattle Department of Transportation employees Ben Darrett, left, and Koli Makasini, right, fill a pothole on Tuesday, January 8, 2019, at the intersection of South Forest Street and Occidental Avenue South in Seattle.
Credit: KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer

Why does Seattle have so many #*$@!^& potholes?

Marc Lawrence was riding his Yamaha FZ1 motorcycle along Martin Luther King Jr. Way in south Seattle last fall when his front tire hit something in the road.

“I thought maybe something fell off a truck in front of me and hit my motorcycle," he said.

Nope. It was a pothole.

He wasn’t hurt, but the front end of bike was badly damaged. Now he’s asking the city to pay for his repair costs.

That's not unusual: Last year Seattle received 179 claims of pothole damage. The city settled 92 of those, and there are 22 claims still open or pending.

These pothole damage claims happen because Seattle’s roads are in bumpy shape. Seattle ranked 11th in the country for worst roads, according to nonprofit TRIP, with 40 percent in “poor condition,” meaning rutting and cracks and potholes.

Marc Lawrence was riding his Yamaha FZ1 motorcycle along Martin Luther King Jr. Way in south Seattle last fall when his front tire hit something in the road.
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Marc Lawrence was riding his Yamaha FZ1 motorcycle along Martin Luther King Jr. Way in south Seattle last fall when his front tire hit something in the road.
Credit: Courtesy of Marc Lawrence

TRIP says these road conditions cost drivers here an extra $684 dollars each year on average. (Note that TRIP receives funding from the transportation industry, and this study used federal data that looked at all roads in Seattle, not just city-maintained roads.)

That brings us to this week’s #SoundQ from listener Joy Canova: Why are there so many potholes in Seattle?

Ben Hansen, a civil engineer and pothole expert with the Seattle's Department of Transportation, said it’s mostly because we have a “large backlog of streets that need to be re-paved.”

Hansen said a brand-new road doesn’t get potholes because it doesn’t allow in rainwater. But as our roads age, they start to crack.

That’s mostly due to the weight of large trucks and buses. According to one estimate, one large truck causes as much road damage as 9,600 cars.

Once the road cracks, the water seeps into the pavement, and down into the soil that supports the road. There it freezes and thaws and freezes and thaws and ... potholes!

Seattle filled over 25,000 of them last year. And that's not just about safety. It’s also about politics.

Seattle mayors have touted their "tough on pothole" policies for years. We don't just have road crews in Seattle: We've got “pothole rangers,” and we hold “pothole paloozas."

Meanwhile, the decaying road infrastructure that gives rise to so many potholes never gets fixed. Part of it is money. It costs roughly $2 million to resurface a mile of two-lane street, and Hansen said deeper problems lurk further below the surface.

"On Capitol Hill we've paved over brick and cobblestone streets, and that original pavement is still below that thin asphalt layer,” Hansen said. “We're really trying to bring our streets from the horse and carriage era, into the modern era.”

Artist Baadal Nanjundaswamy in Bangalore India makes art out of potholes to bring attention to the terrible condition of the roads.
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Artist Baadal Nanjundaswamy in Bangalore India makes art out of potholes to bring attention to the terrible condition of the roads.
Credit: Courtesy of Baadal Nanjundaswamy

Those older roads need to be rebuilt from the ground up, and that costs even more.

In 2015, voters passed the Move Seattle Levy. It included hundreds of miles of repaving and other road work, which has been happening. But rising costs and other factors means repaving work was scaled back, leaving many roads in poor condition.

So what’s a despairing driver or cyclist or motorcycle-rider to do? In other countries, artists have taken matters into their own hands. Baadal Nanjundaswamy, an artist based in Bangalore India, for example, makes art out of potholes to bring attention to the terrible condition of the roads.

Here in Seattle (even if it’s not as much fun), you can just report a pothole and the city will come out and fix it within three days, they say. Here’s how:

Call the city’s Pothole and Street Repair hotline at 684 ROAD (206-684-7623).

Use the Find It Fix It App.

Fill out their online Pothole Report form.

A pothole in south Seattle. 
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