A bottomless pothole foretells more problems ahead



A dramatic four-foot Highway Pothole foretells problems ahead

This week a large pothole appeared on the elevated ramp connecting the Spokane Street viaduct with northbound HWY 99 in Seattle. This was no ordinary pothole, it left a four-foot wide hole with a view through the exposed re-bar to the ground thirty feet below. As the day went on the hole grew and several cars suffered flat tires after hitting the edge of this bottomless pothole.

As you can imagine this made a great visual for the TV news. What the cameras didn’t capture was the bigger picture of inadequate highway and roadway maintenance. Some cities and counties do a commendable job of maintaining transportation infrastructure, but there are many cities and some counties, as well as WSDOT, that have underfunded maintenance and preservation for years.

Now there is a huge backlog of unfunded maintenance and repair work. For the State Highway system WSDOT estimates the annual funding shortfall at $350 million. The biennial transportation budget the legislature has just passed allocates $609 million for highway maintenance but that is not enough to keep up with system maintenance and preservation needs which are continuing to grow over time. The Spokane Street viaduct pothole will not be the last one to appear on our State’s highways.

The problem is not limited to WSDOT. King County officials, who are responsible for over 1,500 miles of county roads and more than 180 bridges, have underfunded maintenance for years. The backlog is so large the County is faced with allowing some roads to turn to gravel, and they are closing bridges that are no longer structurally sound. 

The City of Seattle has recently been boasting that in 2022 SDOT filled 23,000 potholes, a five year record. That’s good news but it doesn’t explain why City officials allowed their streets to deteriorate to such poor condition in the first place. In 2015 voters in Seattle approved a $930 million transportation levy to fund road maintenance, but of Seattle’s 3,952 lane miles of street the levy has funded paving for only about 30 miles of street each year.

WSDOT officials say the pothole on the Spokane Street viaduct ramp should be fixed in about ten days. No word yet on the State’s other potholes that need attention.