Potholes cost drivers, not cities, DOT

If your car is damaged by a pothole, you can try seeking reimbursement from the city or state. Just don’t expect a favorable outcome.

Minnesota transportation officials say it’s increasingly rare for a claim related to pothole damage to be paid. That’s in part because of dwindling budgets and a state policy that allows officials to deny a claim if they can show they weren’t aware of the pothole.

Minneapolis paid just three of its 49 claims last year and none of its 59 in the first months of this year, according to an analysis by Minnesota Public Radio.

St. Paul receives between two and 20 pothole-related claims per year between January and March but hasn’t paid a single one in four years, MPR found.

Those numbers aren’t surprising. In Minnesota, cities are only liable for pothole damage if officials have been notified about the hole and didn’t fix it.

Potholes aren’t a big issue in Austin, according to Steven Lang, assistant city engineer. Although city officials don’t track how many potholes workers fix in a given maintenance season, Lang said city workers are usually on top of potholes.

“I would anticipate that we are fairly low-ranking when it comes to pothole issues,” Lang said. “Overall, we’re fairly aggressive at getting them repaired, so the reports of potholes are fairly limited.”

County Engineer Mike Hanson agrees, as every spring county supervisors map out area pothole hotspots before patching them up. According to Hanson, potholes mostly occur in spring when the roads start to thaw out and any trapped water will freeze and thaw, pushing concrete around and creating holes.

“It isn’t a major part of the construction season, but it is a part of the annual maintenance,” Hanson said.

If residents see a pothole, they can report it to either the city engineering department or Mower County Highway Department, depending on whether the road is a city or county road.

Sandra Bodensteiner, St. Paul’s manager for Workers Compensation and Tort Liability, said the city investigates every claim.

“I can’t really think of a situation with a pothole where … we’ve paid recently, or even in the last couple years,” she said. “Our crews are really good about, if we have a complaint call come in, getting out there.”

That’s disheartening to motorists like Sam Hardman, who was running errands in St. Paul in January when he hit a pothole and his tire popped.

He had the tire replaced and his bent rim fixed at a garage, where the bill came to about $120. Although his insurance wouldn’t cover the cost, he felt optimistic when he discovered he could file an online claim with the city.

“On the claim form, there’s a line for filling out exactly where it was and what time of day,” Hardman said. “It makes you think, ‘Oh, somebody’s going to listen to me.’”

A few weeks later he got a letter from the city rejecting his claim on the basis that the pothole hadn’t been reported to the city.

Drivers who hit potholes on state roads can submit claims to the Minnesota Department of Transportation. The state Department of Administration looks into every report and rules whether the state will cover the cost.

The state generally gets 40 to 90 claims per year but the number has soared since last year.

Between January and March 2010, 155 people asked MnDOT to pay for repairs from pothole damage. The department paid five claims worth a total of about $4,700. This year 136 have been filed, with three covered in the amount of $1,600.

David Ahern of the Administration Department said dwindling funds and deteriorating roads are to blame.

“I think there has been a shortage of dollars to do permanent repair — replace the entire surface of a section of a road,” he said. “So a lot of it has been patching.”

Most comprehensive insurance policies cover pothole damage, according to Mark Kulda, a spokesman for the Insurance Federation of Minnesota. However, not everyone has comprehensive insurance because it’s not required.

Those without adequate insurance “get their car damaged, and they want to fix it so they go to the city or the state to try to make a claim,” he said. “But, you know, budgets are tight.”

— The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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