Alan Valiev was driving his car on Northgate Way in March when he heard a loud "crack." He'd hit a pothole. And the impact from the hole had broken several expensive components of his wheel assembly. Fortunately for Valiev, he was able to submit a damage claim with the city of Seattle and, he hopes, will lead to getting his $1,200 repair bill paid on the taxpayers' dime.
Valiev isn't alone. In fact, in the first year since Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn took office, nearly three times as many drivers have sought compensation from the city for pothole-related damage than in previous years.
Responding to a public-records request by Seattle Weekly, the city's Department of Finance and Administrative Services provided figures that show a 270% increase in the number of pothole claims submitted to the city and a 241% increase in the amount of money paid on those claims, as compared to the average amount in each of the previous four years.
Here are some charts showing the increase in claims and amount paid out.
There are a few plausible scenarios for what would lead to such a spike in the number of pothole claims. If the city was somehow promoting its pothole-claim submittal services more than usual, or had streamlined it in some way, that might explain it. Also, if the 2010 winter had been somehow significantly more severe than previous years, that might partially explain it as well.
The first reason is simply not the case. The claim-submitting process for the city hasn't changed, and consists of a generic form that's used for nearly all damage-compensation requests.
The Seattle Department of Transportation says the latter reason is to blame. "We had the severe freeze of Thanksgiving weekend and then the Pineapple Express the next month and had record rainfall," says SDOT Operations Manager Steve Pratt. "It was a confluence of the worst possible events for asphalt paving."
Pratt also says that cuts in staffing (the department lost 22 positions last year) have impacted SDOT greatly. He then provided data that showed a significant uptick in the number of potholes reported and repaired in Seattle in 2010 as compared to previous years.
McGinn's spokesperson Aaron Pickus, meanwhile, says that the data we're looking at is flawed because it's broken down by years beginning in July and not January. Essentially, he says that since the mayor took office in January 2010 and the year in question (as measured by FAS) started in July of that year, the numbers aren't an accurate reflection of the McGinn administration's road stewardship.
Mike McGinn, pothole baron.
Yet there's no denying that the year in question is the first full year year's worth of FAS figures (according to how the city agency tabulates such figured and fulfilled our request) which coincide with McGinn's tenure, and they show a significant spike in pothole claims.
For Valiev, who works as an account executive with a local cellular phone company, all he knows is that driving around Seattle is like driving through a minefield. "I think the pothole problem has gotten way worse," says Valiev. "It feels like the city just isn't paying attention."
Mechanics are noticing the increase in pothole damages too. A technician at Best Service & Repair on 96th Street who worked on Valiev's car says that mechanics have never seen so many pothole-damaged vehicles as in the last year. "This last year was the worst we've ever seen," says the technician, who asked not to be named. "We've seen so many cars come in with pothole damage, it's hard to count."
There's no doubt that managing potholes is not an exact science. The number of holes and their severity depends on several factors, many of which are not dependent on any steps that the city is able to take. And, by all accounts, 2010 was not a good year for asphalt in Seattle thanks to the weather.
But whether the winter was actually almost three times as bad as normal--as the data relating to claims certainly implies--remains a bit of a stretch.
Whatever the case, the McGinnistration needs only look to its predecessor Greg Nickels and his 2010 primary thumping for lessons on the importance of nipping the pothole problem in the bud.
Then again, with a 23 percent approval rating, McGinn could likely fix every pothole in Seattle with his own bare hands and still not get reelected.
*Updated to show that data provided by FAS is not measured in fiscal years, but rather in calendar years that begin in July. Updated again to show that Valiev has not been compensated by the city yet. He's still awaiting his claim being approved.
Updated again to show that Valiev has not been compensated by the city yet. He's still awaiting his claim being approved.