WATERVILLE — The recent break in bitterly cold temperatures may be melting the ice, but it’s also contributing to an explosion of potholes on area roads, keeping road crews busy and motorists on edge.

Typically appearing in the spring, large potholes are already keeping public works departments busy and causing bumpy rides on area roads. A weather pattern that includes a lot of precipitation and freezing temperatures, followed by warmer air, are conditions perfect for pothole formation.

Officials and meteorologists expect the trend to get worse as winter continues.

“It’s going to be a fairly difficult and busy year for road conditions and damages,” Waterville Public Works Director Mark Turner said Wednesday. “Potholes are a state-wide phenomena that everyone will experience.”

In Augusta, the city has received eight-pothole related complaints in the last week, but road repairs are expected to be needed in lots of areas of the capital, according Augusta Street Superintendent Jerry Dostie.

“It really wasn’t an issue until last week when the temperatures started to rise,” Dostie said. “We’re doing what we can though to stay on top of it.”

Augusta crews have already started work on Mount Vernon Avenue and Riverside Drive, two areas that are particularly plagued by potholes, said Dostie.

Other state and regional officials also said they expect this winter to bring lots of potholes, while area residents said they’ve experienced more difficult driving conditions as a result.

In Waterville, resident Tabatha Wozniak, 38, said road conditions around the city were not good after driving down pothole-ridden Cool Street.

“It’s awful. I come down this road all the time and I’m always afraid I’m going to pop a tire or hit my back muffler,” said Wozniak.

Felisha Dube, a Fairfield resident and nurse’s assistant who works at Oak Grove Center on Cool Street, also said that road is in rough condition, but most of nearby Fairfield’s roads are in decent shape.

“It’s not something I worry about every day, although I imagine some people do. It can be pretty bumpy and torn up,” said Dube, 27.

The city of Waterville does not track the number of potholes reported or repaired, but Turner thinks the number is high. The city is trying to stay ahead of road maintenance, which means increased demand of manpower and overtime pay for public works crews is already at close to 75 percent of what has been budgeted for the year ending June 30, Turner said. As a result, he expects the department to exceed its overtime budget, meaning some other projects may need to be postponed.

According to the National Weather Service, there have been temperature swings of more than 60 degrees in the month of January in the area.

In Augusta, the monthly low so far was 13 below zero recorded on Jan. 4 while the high temperature was 53 degrees recorded on Jan. 6. In Waterville, a similar pattern took place with a low of 22 below zero recorded on Jan. 4 followed by a high of 53 degrees on Jan.7, according to the weather service.

Temperatures that fluctuate between warm and freezing are the main factor in pothole formation, said Randy Geaumont, supervisor of highway operations for the Maine Department of Transportation.

The process starts when water can’t drain off the road and settles into cracks that have already formed in the pavement, eventually saturating lower levels of pavement, he said. Changes in temperature cause the pavement to become fragile and break easily as the water in the cracks freezes and expands.

“I think it’s just starting to crop up with all the warm weather we’ve been experiencing in the last week or so,” said Geaumont. “If our roads have any potholes we have crews out there trying to repair them right away.”

The cycle of freezing and thawing is typical throughout the winter and it is likely process will continue in the next few months, said meteorologist Eric Schwibs of the National Weather Service in Gray.

Potholes can cause damage to cars and trucks, including changes in alignment, flat tires and bent rims, said Josh Crowell, a service manager at Harry J. Smith Co. Car and Truck Repairs in Waterville.

To have the alignment corrected can cost about $60, while a new set of tires can cost up to a couple hundred dollars, he said. The best strategy for driving over a pothole is to try and straddle it or avoid it, he said, and while the repair shop hasn’t seen too many pothole-related repairs lately, it is something he said he expects to see more of as the winter progresses.

In Gardiner, Public Works Director Tony LaPlante said road crews got started on repairing potholes this week, including major ones on Bridge Street and Highland Avenue.

“Dealing with them this early in the year is an oddity, although it has happened in the past,” LaPlante said. “There’s definitely some big ones.”

Repairing potholes quickly and efficiently is important because if left unattended they can grow and contribute to further deterioration of roads as well as accidents and vehicle damage, said Geaumont, who also reminded drivers to be alert and use caution when passing public works crews making repairs.

Rachel Ohm— 612-2368 [email protected]