NY Gov. Hochul declares $1B war on potholes as she tries to connect with commuters

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It’s been a long and bumpy road to the governor’s mansion for Kathy Hochul.

Literally. Bone-jarringly bumpy.

Hochul has been bounced around on the BQE and the Belt Parkway, in Binghamton and Buffalo while crisscrossing the state as lieutenant governor.

“I’ve traveled to every one of our 62 counties in each of the past seven years, so I know nearly every road, highway, bridge,” Hochul said during her State of the State address in early January. “I also have personal experience with just about every pothole in New York – especially on the Long Island Expressway.”

Between Brooklyn and Queens too.

A large pothole is pictured along the heavily traveled Yonkers Avenue in Yonkers, Jan 25, 2022.
A large pothole is pictured along the heavily traveled Yonkers Avenue in Yonkers, Jan 25, 2022.

“I have been on every pothole between these two boroughs,” Hochul said weeks later, as she announced a development in a plan to bring rail service to sections of Brooklyn and Queens where commuters rely on buses to get to work. “It is not a fun experience when you’re on a bus ride.”

And to make sure everyone was paying attention, Hochul mixed in a tweet after she announced that her $216 billion budget for 2023 would include $1 billion to rid the state of potholes.

“I said in my State of the State address that I was coming for the potholes and I am,” she wrote.

Call it pothole politics.

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Hochul has made clear she’s no fan of those ugly craters that cause cars to bottom out, toss bicyclists over handlebars and bring despair to most everyone — except perhaps the guy down the street who runs the tire repair and alignment shop.

She’s even given her initiative a catch phrase: Operation Pave Our Potholes (POP).

New York Gov. Kathy Hochul delivers her first State of the State address in the Assembly Chamber at the state Capitol, Wednesday, Jan. 5, 2022, in Albany, N.Y. (AP Photo/Hans Pennink, Pool)
New York Gov. Kathy Hochul delivers her first State of the State address in the Assembly Chamber at the state Capitol, Wednesday, Jan. 5, 2022, in Albany, N.Y. (AP Photo/Hans Pennink, Pool)

Pothole priority to yield a political payoff?

It’s an uncontroversial stance that signals to the people she represents that they share a common anguish. And it swipes a page from the playbook of a Long Island Republican reelected time and again in a mostly Democratic state by paying attention to the day-to-day concerns of his constituents. Sen. Alfonse D’Amato, aka Senator Pothole.

Evan Stavisky, a lobbyist and longtime Democratic consultant, says the approach is rooted in Hochul’s political beginnings, when she served on the town board for her hometown of Hamburg near Buffalo.

Stavisky says it’s not only good policy but good politics to pursue major projects like the Interborough Express, which could connect Brooklyn and Queens with a rail line, while keeping an eye on what matters to middle class and working class families.

“You can do big things and you can do them smart, but you can also tackle the day-to-day things that just annoy the hell out of people who are trying to live their lives, trying to get to and from work and they’re getting their tires blown out on potholes,” Stavisky said. “It doesn’t have to be an either-or proposition.”

Republican strategist Bill O'Reilly thinks it's a nice try but wonders whether it will be enough to get voters to ignore other issues the Democratic governor will need to confront in the coming years.

"The governor must be thinking, 'What was good for Al D'Amato will be good for me,' " O'Reilly said. "I wouldn't be surprised if her people start calling her the 'pothole' governor in an orchestrated branding effort. It's clever marketing, but will it eclipse issues like no-cash-bail? Very doubtful."

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A large pothole filled with melting snow on Birch Hill Road in Patterson Jan. 25, 2022.
A large pothole filled with melting snow on Birch Hill Road in Patterson Jan. 25, 2022.

Potholes an upstate scourge

They loved the idea in Ithaca.

“Potholes are more than an inconvenience,” Mayor Svante Myrick tweeted. “They’re a safety hazard and can create huge economic hardships.”

Parker Singleton would agree. The Cornell University graduate student says he’s wiped out on his bike after hitting a pothole coming down Ithaca’s steep hills on the way to school.

“I’m not trying to throw anyone under the bus here,” Singleton said in a message. “I just think the impact of potholes on bikers is probably overlooked and it’s quite dangerous and many bikes aren’t really built to handle that kind of daily wear like a car is. I think for a community that cares about issues like sustainability, we could make it easier for folks trying to reduce their carbon footprint by biking.”

It’s a dinner-table topic that transcends the provincial concerns of communities upstate and downstate because, look around. There are just a lot of potholes in New York.

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Patches of potholes are pictured along the heavily traveled Midland Avenue Avenue in Yonkers, Jan 25, 2022.
Patches of potholes are pictured along the heavily traveled Midland Avenue Avenue in Yonkers, Jan 25, 2022.

New York needs $8B to fix rough roads, report finds

A few weeks ago, the Washington-based nonprofit TRIP, sponsored in part by insurance companies, issued a report saying nearly half of state and local roads were in poor to mediocre condition mostly due to inadequate government funding. It pegged New Yorkers’ cost for driving on rough roads at $7.7 billion.

Average annual costs to drivers was $632, with a high of $759 for drivers in the New York City area and a low of $244 in Binghamton.

The state’s initiative, which will go before the legislature in the coming months, would provide $1 billion over five years to “resurface and renew the state’s worst roadway pavements,” according to Joseph Morrissey, a spokesman for the state Department of Transportation.

Fifty percent of the funds will be distributed annually to municipal governments based on a formula already in place, similar to the Consolidated Local Street and Highway Improvement Program (CHIPS). The balance will go toward mitigating poor conditions of state-owned highways, Morrissey says.

The governor’s office will work with the legislature in deciding how best to allocate the funding.

The announcement comes at a time of year when, like the crocus and the daffodil, potholes begin to bloom.

Water has seeped beneath pavement, creating voids that remain mostly unseen during the cold winter months. Once the ground starts to thaw in February and March, holes open on the surface.

John Knieriem the Rockland County Highway Department in New City, looks over the process of heating the materials used in asphalt repairs on Tuesday, January 25, 2022.
John Knieriem the Rockland County Highway Department in New City, looks over the process of heating the materials used in asphalt repairs on Tuesday, January 25, 2022.

The road to pothole prevention

Charles “Skip” Vezzetti has tracked the rhythms of the pothole bloom for the past 40 years. And Vezzetti, Rockland County’s superintendent of highways, has turned pothole prevention into something of a science.

For Vezzetti, that means sending workers out twice a year, in the spring and fall, to rate all local roads and decide which ones need work and what process will be used to get them in shape.

“For every dollar you spend doing that (preventive maintenance), you’re going to save $10 down the road having to do a capital project like an overlay,” Vezzetti said.

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Gone is the age-old thinking of letting a road go with little upkeep and then rebuilding it after 20 years. Preventive maintenance limits the likelihood of a costly resurfacing.

Cracks in roadways can be sealed. Milling and filling removes the top layer of roads and replaces it with new asphalt.

The work garnered an award from the Federal Highway Administration, which recognized Rockland's paving program as having one of the lowest costs per-mile in the state.

Of course, Vezzetti's workers fill potholes within 24 hours of a complaint, using asphalt they make at a site in New City.

But for Vezzetti, if all you're doing is fixing potholes, then you’re probably not doing your job very well.

A pothole in the middle of Rt. 303 in West Nyack Jan. 25, 2022.
A pothole in the middle of Rt. 303 in West Nyack Jan. 25, 2022.

That was the talk last week at a meeting of highway superintendents when some in attendance, while supportive of the governor’s initiative, wondered if Operation Pave Our Potholes was really the most apt name for the plan.

“They felt It could have used a better title,” Vezzetti said. “Why would they say it’s just about fixing potholes? Are we just going to go out and fix potholes?”

Likely not.

“The idea is using the right money for the right road at the right time,” Vezzetti said. “This is where that’s going.”

No matter.

Hochul is committed to the idea, as she made clear during her budget address.

“This strategy takes us from potholes to not holes,” Hochul said, without a wink.

This article originally appeared on New York State Team: Hochul declares war on New York's potholes, commits $1B to fixing them

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