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Central Standard

Missourians Might Complain The Most, But A Hellish Pothole Problem Is Not Unique To Kansas City

Julie Denesha
KCUR 89.3
A pothole at 71st and Troost in mid-February.

Last July, Frank Sereno, who lives in Kansas City, Missouri's Waldo neighborhood, gathered his neighbors and threw a three-month anniversary party for a pothole, complete with birthday cake.

He was fed up. He had reported this specific pothole, which was outside his house, to City Hall's 311 Action Center three months earlier to no avail. After the story of the pothole birthday party went viral, the pothole was fixed almost immediately.

It taught Frank that these kinds of antics are what it takes to get a pothole fixed in Kansas City.

Since then, hundreds of people have signed a petition Sereno circulated asking the city to repave Waldo's roads.

It's made him a leading voice of pothole complaints, of which Missouri has no shortage.

Credit Autowise.com
Twitter data from January 2020 shows Missourians complain more about potholes than anyone else in the nation.

Are Waldo's roads really that bad? Yes, and no. City Hall's map of reported potholes shows more of them in certain areas, but the worst neighborhood for potholes might depend on which Kansas Citian you ask and where they live.

It's definitely another record year, though. The year began with 33% more reported potholes than in 2019, but is now averaging out to be about the same. As of February 19, crews have patched 832 potholes reported in 2020; a total of 1,279 cases remain open, forcing public works crews to focus their efforts on major roadways in the most disrepair.

Kansas City Public Works Public Information Officer Maggie Green said she’s aware of residents' perception that the city plays favorites with how it prioritizes repairs. But she said she sees potholes as a citywide issue.

She also said it's hard to compare things across the State Line.

"The ratio that we have, of amount of lanes to maintain to the amount of crews we have, is different on KCMO's side than when you cross the State Line," said Green. "We have over 6,000 lane miles in KCMO alone."

Mayor Quinton Lucas blames the current situation in part on past mismanagement of funds. In his recent State of the City address, he urged his colleagues to stop "kicking the can down the potholed road" and asked the city manager to appoint a "pothole czar."

"Potholes are not an act of God," he said. "As we look at road spending priorities from each of our districts, I encourage us to prioritize existing troubled arterials like Gregory, rather than new expansion projects that exist in each of our districts."

Credit Frank Sereno
Last summer, Waldo resident Frank Sereno threw a 'birthday party' for a pothole in front of his house that had not been repaired after three months.

Brooks Rainwater, senior executive and director of the Center for City Solutions at the National League of Cities, analyzes State of the Cities speeches around the country annually. He says in 2019, infrastructure was the second most important issue addressed by mayors and that 20% of mayoral speeches mentioned potholes specifically.

“There’s no Democratic or Republican way to fix a pothole,” said Rainwater. “What it actually speaks to is the longer term infrastructure challenges we have as a country.”

Rainwater said another mayoral priority is a focus on equity, something that intersects with the discussion around paving plans and potholes. Often, poorer neighborhoods also have the worst roads, which causes problems when you consider how costly car repairs are after hitting a pothole. 

That's something Oakland, California, took to heart when adopting a radical approach to fixing potholes on residential streets last year. The plan Oakland adopted in May prioritizes residential street repairs in areas with underserved populations. The funding for the paving plan came from a local bond measure that passed with 82% approval.

"We're working against the past practice of local streets being prioritized for paving by the squeaky wheels, or who can complain the most to their council member and get their street paved," said Sarah Fine, paving and sidewalks manager for the City of Oakland.

Credit Jim Bachor
Frustrated with a pothole in his Chicago neighorhood, artist Jim Bachor has now filled more than 80 potholes with art in places as far away as New York and Finland.

Mechanic Mark Trokey, who owns a small shop in Waldo, says damage to a car's suspension, wheels and tires can add up to hundreds or thousands of dollars. Recently, he said, four people stopped into his shop on the same day because they needed new tires and rims after hitting potholes.

“It’s sometimes disheartening for us as mechanics,” he said. “Our customers sometimes have a hard time just making their maintenance on the vehicles.”

If you’ve suffered property damage on Kansas City streets as the result of a reported pothole, you can file a claim for damages. Last year, Kansas City paid $125,273 in response to 1,763 claims. The money can’t help you in the short-term immediately after an incident, though.

If you've already reported a pothole in your neighborhood and want to know how long it'll take to get fixed, data science student Lori Schlatter's Kansas City Pothole Predictor might provide some answers. While she cautions everyone to take the estimations with a grain of salt, it will give you a sense of the kinds of limits the public works department is working with.

One of Schlatter's biggest takeaways from digging through the data is that successfully estimating a pothole repair in Kansas City is far from being a science. For now.

Frank Sereno, Maggie Green, Brooks Rainwater, Sarah Fine and Mark Trokey spoke with Gina Kaufmann on a recent episode of KCUR's Central Standard. You can listen to their entire conversation here

Mackenzie Martin is an associate producer for KCUR's Central Standard. Reach out to her at mackenzie@kcur.org or on Twitter @_macmartin.

Whether it’s something happening right now or something that happened 100 years ago, some stories don’t fit in the short few minutes of a newscast. As a podcast producer and reporter at KCUR Studios, I help investigate questions and local curiosities in a way that brings listeners along for adventures with plot twists and thought-provoking ideas. Sometimes there isn’t an easy answer in the end – but my hope is that we all leave with a greater understanding of the city we live in. Reach me at mackenzie@kcur.org.