The Pothole Holdup

December 4, 2008 9:15:19 AM PST
Why are thousands of Chicago drivers who bottomed out in potholes earlier this year seeing a holdup in city reimbursements for the damage?Death, taxes and potholes are three certainties of life in Chicago.

Last winter and spring saw the growth of more deep, dangerous potholes than at any time in at least a decade. Thousands of irked Chicagoans whose cars were damaged followed city suggestions that they file damage claims.

But six months later, many of those motorists say they are victims again, this time, of "the pothole holdup."

They were everywhere. As the I-Team reported last winter, hubcaps kept tallies of the worst potholes in Chicago.

"Last year was an extraordinary year in terms of potholes. We had a near record snowfall, more than we've seen in 30 years as well as freeze/thaw cycles, which are the root cause of potholes. Our pothole crews filled over 400,000 potholes," said Brian Steele, Chicago Department of Transportation.

Some are filled faster than others. One found by the I-Team in February we called "the Superhole." It was right on a major entryway to the Loop. It grew for weeks.

"I didn't see it. I didn't have any sense I was going to run into it. It just snuck up on me and hit me," Jonathan Lavin, Superhole victim, said in February.

When we first met Skokie resident Lavin in February, the Superhole had popped both of his left side tires, costing him nearly $500 to replace.

"I just simply was ambushed," Lavin said.

Now, Lavin said he feels ambushed again, having done what the city asked of him since February.

"I filed a claim, like, the week after," Lavin said.

But ten months later, he still hasn't seen any money from the city.

"I sent them pictures. They wouldn't have had to see anything with me, they could have turned on Channel 7 to see me," Lavin said.

Lavin isn't alone. Drivers filed ten times as many pothole claims last winter as the previous year

Of the 4,300 claims filed with the city clerk's office this year, most for pothole damage, only 171 motorists have been paid anything. That's a tiny fraction of pothole claimants. The city council finance committee, which decides who gets what, if anything, is so backed up that claims are yet to be processed.

"I just don't see any reason why you'd want a general assembly or a city council involved. It's just an administrative matter," Lavin said.

Even after all the red tape, pothole victims who get anything receive no more than half of their repair costs. The city says that's because motorists have some blame for not steering away from the holes. The average claim payout is $236.

"I was ambushed last year, and I'm being held ransom this year," Lavin laughed.

It could be even worse this winter for the Chicago Department of Transportation. CDOT's spokesman was trying to calm public concern about the 30 management layoffs expected January 1.

"We're going to have the same number of crews and the same equipment on the streets as we saw last winter. Where we will see a cutback is on the administrative and planning end - the people who develop the maps and do the planning. We don't think those cuts will have a significant, if any, impact at all on our pothole operations," Steele said.

Steele contends only one of the layoffs will actually be in the pothole department.

"The thing that hits me is that a pothole could kill somebody," Lavin said.

Layoffs or not, Lavin says potholes just need to be fixed as quickly as they're reported. And if the city promises reimbursement for damaged cars, payment should be reasonably prompt.

These days though, when Lavin drives downtown, he said he appeals to a higher power for pothole guidance.

"Definitely, I pray whenever I go onto Lower Wacker," he said.

Damage claims travel a long and bumpy road through city government. They must get from the city clerk's office to the city council to the finance committee, where officials confer with the department of transportation before claims head back to the city council and if approved, are finally paid out by the comptroller's office.

Miraculously, a few days after the I-Team inquired about Lavin's 9-month-old claim, it was approved. When we asked the finance department's spokesperson to go over all this on camera, he declined.


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