After a rough winter, potholes are ubiquitous on Ann Arbor streets. The end of winter marks the beginning of road repair season, and some fraction of the potholes get filled in. The beginning of snow removal season marks the end of road repair season, and the cycle repeats. Annual Google trend lines show most news stories about potholes happen between January and April, as do most searches for potholes.
The technology to repair a pothole is relatively cheap, with a one or two person truck and some hot patch all that is needed to deal with the incident. In comparison, preventing a pothole from appearing in the first place means spending a lot more capital on road construction to build a more sturdy roadbed capable of handling heavier loads and less likely to buckle or crumble with frost.
At an extreme, you get the original World War Two era Davison Freeway in Detroit, which was over-engineered so that no highway problems would get in the way of the speedy shipment of materials for the war effort. That roadbed lasted from 1942 to 1997 – beat up and dangerous at the end, but still working 55 years before it was rebuilt.
To spend less on pothole repair, spend more on road construction? Perhaps, though there is no guarantee that new pavement will withstand daily traffic. A possible solution is to give a contract which specifies that the road builder is also the road maintainer, and that the cost of a pothole repair comes out of whatever profits were made by the building of the road. At least in theory, it would allow someone to make a reasonable tradeoff between current capital costs and future operations costs of maintaining a road; in practice, it probably would mean low-ball bidding by bidders who would build insubstantial roads and then under-deliver on the promise of keeping them maintained.
Thanks to Fred Posner for the prompt to write about this, and to Peggy Page for post-publication editorial feedback. Previously on potholes: the Ann Arbor Citizen Request System. Archival photos of the Davison Freeway under construction and at its first opening show the impact that freeway building has on a neighborhood. A 2010 story describes potholes for sale in eastern Germany, with the purchaser getting a sponsorship message on the repair; a similar stunt in 2009 featured road repair by KFC. The city has a dedicated phone number to report potholes: call 734-99-HOLES.
Addendum: After publishing a first draft of this piece, I found this 2001 Michigan House Fiscal Agency report on performance warranties for road construction, which goes into some more of the purchasing process for major roadwork to understand how a road builder might manage a contract that required them to make whole a road that had not lived up to promises. It notes that a "warranty bond" would be required to ensure that if the road builder went out of business that the road would still be maintained – a sizable cost that would limit the number of bidders. A report from a performance-based warranty for a rebuild of US 550 in New Mexico describes a successful project for a difficult road; the warranty costs are substantial, amounting to 20% of the total bid.