California Has So Many Potholes, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bikers Are Trying to Fill Them

SACRAMENTO — Spring has arrived with a jolt this year in California. Hammered for months by rain, snow, sleet and nearly every other conceivable meteorological permutation, the state has emerged from one of the harshest winters on record only to confront a fresh indignity.

“These potholes!” Arnold Schwarzenegger complained last week in an interview from his backyard in the affluent Brentwood neighborhood of Los Angeles. Fed up with a stretch of lousy road that for more than a month had been a source of neighborhood consternation, he had just taken matters into his own hands, marching down to the offending street with a shovel and bucket of asphalt and posting the results on Twitter.

“The traffic is backing up, the trucks are almost getting into accidents, the bicycles are coming down the canyon and almost wiping out,” he said. “These potholes are overwhelming the city.”

Make that the entire state.

From the rural far north of California to the Mexico border, pocked pavement is rivaling the wildflower “super bloom” and the re-emergence of Tulare Lake as this spring’s most talked-about remnant of its winter saturation. Crews at the state Transportation Department, or Caltrans, performed 85,883 pothole repairs in the first quarter of this year, more than two and a half times the number in the first quarter of 2022, according to Will Arnold, an agency spokesman.

Potholes occur when rain or snowmelt seeps into cracks in the pavement — freezing, thawing and otherwise softening the underlying material and soil to the point that it cannot support the weight of traffic, according to public works experts. California has rarely seen the torrent of rain and snow it received from January to March.

Caltrans maintains about an eighth of the nearly 400,000 lane miles in California, and offers to compensate drivers for up to $10,000 in repairs stemming from road maintenance issues. The agency closed part of a state route last month for four days of road work after multiple drivers in eastern Los Angeles County reported flat tires and other pothole-related destruction to vehicles.

Caltrans performed 85,883 pothole repairs in the first quarter of this year.Credit…Ian C. Bates for The New York Times
A volunteer tamped down asphalt into a pothole in Vallejo.Credit…Ian C. Bates for The New York Times

In San Jose, calls for pothole repairs have more than doubled since December to an average of about 20 per day, according to Colin Heyne, a city spokesman. In Fresno, repair requests have tripled to more than 3,600 in the first three months of this year compared with the first three months of 2022, city public works officials said.

Mayor Karen Bass of Los Angeles said this month that her city had received more than 19,000 requests for pothole repairs since the first storms hit in late December; so far, the city has fixed about 17,000.

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In an interview, Ms. Bass attributed the lingering problem to the procession of winter storms that have battered the state since December. She also said the department that fills potholes needed more workers and had hundreds of job vacancies.

”The rain here in January alone was more than the entire year last year,” Ms. Bass said. “One month! And water is like kryptonite to asphalt, to quote our head of street services.”

The result has been an onslaught of wrecked springtime pavement more common in cities that see a lot of snow than in this car-centric state where smooth roads tend to be taken for granted.

“You have to drive like a drunken sailor if you want to avoid them,” Jenni Potter, 58, a Rancho Santa Fe resident, said of the potholes on the way to her favorite coffeehouse in San Diego.

In Sacramento, Art Ballard, 61, a landscape contractor, said that some of the roads in Northern California reminded him of the bombed-out streets he saw while delivering humanitarian aid in a Ukrainian war zone.

“I hit one pothole the other day and dented a tire and then hit another and blew it out completely,” he said. “It’s crazy out there. And this was just on a Friday, trying to drive back home from San Jose.”

David Marsteller Jr., the founder of the Vallejo Pothole Vigilantes.Credit…Ian C. Bates for The New York Times
The Vallejo Pothole Vigilantes filled about 350 potholes last year.Credit…Ian C. Bates for The New York Times

In the Bay Area city of Vallejo, a working-class community of about 126,000 people with some of the most poorly maintained roads in the region, a crew of activists who call themselves the Vallejo Pothole Vigilantes is entering its second year of on-again, off-again guerrilla repair work. David Marsteller Jr., the group’s founder, said the volunteers, including city employees and homeless people, relied on donations to fill about 350 potholes around the city last year.

California’s vehicle code outlaws willful and negligent damage to highways, and most governments frown on bootleg repairs, which, if improperly done, can cause accidents, expose taxpayers to lawsuits and actually worsen a pothole. Caltrans requires an encroachment permit for any such construction activity on state highways. Members of the Vallejo group said that they were not cited, but did receive a cease-and-desist letter from the city last year.

“Some on the council were worried someone would get run over and the city would wind up getting sued,” Robert McConnell, the mayor of Vallejo, said. But, he added, the city of about 50 square miles has a road maintenance budget of only about $1.5 million. While he could not publicly condone the ad hoc roadwork, he said that “nothing bad happened” and that the contribution made a dent in the city’s public works backlog.

The Vigilantes — who last year used the moniker “Potholegate Vigilantes” to distinguish themselves from another group that was fixing streets in nearby Oakland — are partnering this year with a Vallejo motorcycle club. The hope, Mr. Marsteller said, is to inspire community members to similarly take matters into their own hands, or at least draw the city’s attention to the urgent need for street maintenance.

“It’s bad out there this year — super bad,” he said. He added that this year’s group, roughly 10 of whom were out filling potholes on Friday, had found new inspiration in Mr. Schwarzenegger’s post last week.

Less inspired were the local authorities in Los Angeles, who pointed out that one of the holes that Mr. Schwarzenegger filled was actually a service trench that had been intentionally dug so that the local gas company could repair a gas line. The utility work was completed in January, but rain delayed the trench repair, a spokesperson for the Southern California Gas Company said in an email.

The Vallejo Pothole Vigilantes rely on donations to cover the cost of filling potholes in their community.Credit…Ian C. Bates for The New York Times
The Vigilantes have taken inspiration from Arnold Schwarzenegger, the actor and former governor, who filled in a pothole in his own neighborhood last week.Credit…Ian C. Bates for The New York Times

Mr. Schwarzenegger said that he took action after weeks of listening to his neighbors complain about weaving into the oncoming lane to avoid the road damage. “I didn’t want to make a big deal,” he said, “but I always say to people who complain, ‘What are you going to do about it?’” So he consulted a contractor friend, he explained, “and showed people that you can go out and fix the hole.”

Many of Mr. Schwarzenegger’s 5.1 million Twitter followers applauded the move, dubbing him the “Tarminator,” a reference to his best-known movie role, and playing on his most famous cinematic lines. “Come with me if you want to pave,” one respondent quipped. The video he posted on Twitter shows his neighbors stopping in their cars to offer thanks.

But Mayor Bass, who just days before had started a major road repair initiative and asked members of the public to apply to work in the Bureau of Street Services, said she was taken aback.

A colleague of Mr. Schwarzenegger in the State Capitol more than a decade ago — she was a Democratic legislative leader when he was the Republican governor — Ms. Bass said she understood his impulse “to go out and terminate that pothole.”

“But I don’t want the public to have to resort to covering their own potholes, for God’s sake,” she said.

The mayor said she called Mr. Schwarzenegger and apologized for the delay in his local repair work, and she asked him to call her first the next time the earth opened on one of his neighborhood byways.

Crews have since returned to inspect Mr. Schwarzenegger’s work. The gas company spokesperson said workers had leveled the area with compaction equipment but had otherwise left his repairs intact.

Mr. Schwarzenegger said he had no regrets and, now, plenty of asphalt. If the patches don’t hold, he said, “I’ll be back.”

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