Potholes a'plenty: Severe winter further degrades already crumbling roads, bridges

This “winter of our discontent,” about which Shakespeare wrote so eloquently, didn’t just bring bone-chilling cold, flu, and astronomical heating bills — it also greatly exacerbated the degradation of roads and bridges, which in many places around the Mid-South were already in deplorable condition.

With frequent precipitation “events” in almost any form the weather gods could devise, and numerous freeze/thaw cycles to expand and break up pavement, this winter has produced a bumper crop of potholes, washouts, and other damage that has turned highways and streets into a whack-a-mole exercise of trying to dodge one pothole before another pops up ahead.

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And it’s not just rural roads — we’re talking state, U.S., and Interstate routes that are not just eye teeth jarringly bumpy due to buckled pavements and expansion joints, but huge potholes that pose the risk of a blowout or a blown front end alignment. Trying to make road repairs in sub-freezing temps and rain/sleet/snow is, of course, next to impossible, and things just go from worse to worser (yeah, I know there’s no such word, but in this case it fits).

All of this is further aggravated by federal and state funding for highway/bridge maintenance and construction that is drying up like a popsicle in the Sahara. The Federal Highway Trust Fund was temporarily rescued from depletion last year, but it’s still on life support, and the Newer and Better Congress is apt to be no less parsimonious than its predecessor when it comes to appropriating money.

There have been efforts at national and state levels to increase gasoline taxes to generate funds to pay for road/bridge rehab and new construction, but with a prevailing anti-tax mindset, odds of that happening are adjudged slim to none. Ironically, OPEC and Big Oil can boost prices at will, for which we get nothing in return except more tanksful of gasoline/diesel, but the mere mention of a tax to provide better, safer roads — well, that’s heresy. So, we pay as much or more in vehicle repair costs from traveling on awful roads.

There’s another downside, which a lot of farmers know firsthand, and that’s when they can’t get from here to there with their crops because ancient bridges can’t support the weight of their trucks.

Just one example: Last fall, hundreds of grain trucks with legal 84,000 pound loads, had to take convoluted, time-consuming detours on Mississippi Highway 6, a major connecting route in the heart of Delta agriculture, because a number of very old and deteriorating bridges were posted at weight limits far below the legal capacity.

“A situation of crisis dimensions,” a Delta Council leader said. And a plight, alas, not likely to get relief anytime soon.

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