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City flooded with claims of damage to vehicles as pothole season starts

City crews are expected to be out in force to patch potholes this week. | Sun-Time file photo

More than 220 claims of damage to vehicles were filed at the City Council meeting on Wednesday — and that’s just the start of what’s expected to be an avalanche of pothole-related claims.

That explains why Mayor Rahm Emanuel is trying to stay one step ahead of the claims and complaints by putting pothole patching crews on the street overnight and seven days a week. As many as 30 crews a day hit the streets on days with good weather. They’ve already filled 100,000 potholes since Jan. 1.

On Friday, Emanuel visited city crews filling potholes at 78th Street between South Shore Drive and Coles for a photo op to show he’s paying close and frenzied attention to a parochial problem with the potential to trigger a political backlash.

“The snow has melted away…The temperature is getting warmer. And that means all of the potholes are here…As soon as the sun came out, the pothole crews are out…Starting mid-April, we’re gonna go from patching to paving…A little over 250 miles is the goal this year,” the mayor said.

Emanuel said he “understands the perception” that pothole-pocked streets in South Side neighborhoods don’t get as much attention as the rest of the city, “But, I know the reality…It’s not an accident that we’re here [in South Shore]. One is, you have an alderman who advocates on behalf of his constituents. And second is because one of the reforms we sought was the ability to add more crews to make sure it happens in every part of the city.”

The mayor was referring to concessions made in exchange for the prevailing wage as part of the city’s new five-year contract with 34 unions representing truck drivers, plumbers, laborers and members of the building trades.

It gives City Hall “operational flexibility” to transfer laborers once permanently assigned to work on concrete, asphalt, electrical, sign, and paint projects to work temporarily filling potholes.

“That will give us additional resources in labor to help us to respond to whatever Mother Nature throws at us as pothole season begins,” said Transportation Commissioner Rebekah Scheinfeld.

“If we end up with a record number of potholes here or if conditions continue to worsen, we will have the ability to add more crews out there every day. Right now, we’re keeping ahead of the game. We’re filling street potholes on an average of three days and alley potholes in an average of four days.”

City Council meetings in February normally include only a handful of claims. More than 220 February claims — obviously triggered by the freeze-and-thaw-cycle and wild swings in temperature — is a sign that it will be a long and costly claims season.

The city clerk’s office processes damage claims of up to $2,000, for such issues as flat tires, bent wheels, and realignments, before passing them along to the City Council’s Finance Committee.

Claim forms are available at http://www.chicityclerk.com. Motorists must send in the completed form with a copy of the police report and either a paid repair bill or two estimates. Payment can take up to six months but don’t count on full reimbursement.

The city usually pays half; the theory is, motorists are at least partly responsible for hitting potholes instead of driving around them.

Four years ago, Emanuel headed into his re-election campaign by moving heaven, earth and pavement to address a pothole problem that triggered 1,000 claims a month all through the spring of 2014.

He started crews early, added six more weekend crews and ordered CDOT to assign all 30 pothole crews to main streets on Mondays and Fridays to address scores of potholes in blitzkrieg fashion using a grid system.

Also, instead of fighting a losing battle against potholes, the mayor announced the city would resurface 22 more miles of arterial streets, thanks to $14 million from the state, $8 million from tax increment financing and funding pooled from aldermanic menu money.

The mayor subsequently used $18 million in federal community development block grant funds to resurface an additional 15 miles of streets ravaged by a brutal winter.

But the plan touched a nerve with the City Council.

When Southwest Side Ald. Matt O’Shea (19th) credited CDOT with at least “doing a good job filling potholes,” he was interrupted by Budget Committee Chairman Carrie Austin (34th), one of the Emanuel’s staunchest African-American supporters in the Council.

“No, they’re not,” Austin said.