Pain in the Pothole: Pothole damage can be costly, but who pays for those repairs?

If your car hits a pothole and gets damaged, who pays for it? 7 Investigates looked at claims filed with some central Wisconsin cities to get the answer.
Updated: Feb. 13, 2023 at 6:30 PM CST
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(WSAW) - Everyone has a pothole story, especially throughout winter and spring as the craters develop. Some are just obnoxious to drive on while others can do real damage.

“Anytime you have a road, you’re going to get pothole issues,” Dustin Kraege, the superintendent of Wausau Public Works said.

“Anytime you get cracks in your pavement or in the asphalt, water can get down on your road, and it’s going to erode the sub-base underneath,” he continued. “So, your rocks and your dirt and stuff like that underneath get kind of washed out and then the pavement sinks into it. And that’s how you get the pothole.”

Despite this endless loop of pothole creation, the pressure is on every year for crews like Kraege’s to keep up with the craters.

“Boy, I bet there’s a pothole developing as we speak,” Stevens Point Mayor Mike Wiza added.

As the climate shifts to temperatures that teeter along the freezing mark throughout the winter more often, with wetter conditions in Wisconsin too, drivers can expect more potholes every year.

“I don’t want to say they’re worse than normal,” Kraege said of this year’s round of potholes thus far, “but they probably are a little bit when we get the freeze and thaw cycles that we’ve been getting, it really blows the potholes up, and they get bad quick.”

“It’s like painting the Golden Gate Bridge, right? You start on one end, by the time you get to the other, you gotta paint the other side,” Mayor Wiza said.

It is an endless cycle, but it can be quite costly for drivers of all shapes and sizes.

East Wausau Avenue in Wausau is a particularly bumpy ride heading to and from Wausau East High...
East Wausau Avenue in Wausau is a particularly bumpy ride heading to and from Wausau East High School.(WSAW Tom Zurawski)

“It can really mess up alignments and tires and rims, all sorts of damage, and nobody’s got money to fix cars,” Mayor Wiza noted.

That statement goes for the municipalities and the people behind the wheel. 7 Investigates looked into claims people filed with three cities in central Wisconsin to get a sense of who is paying for that damage when it happens.

There are 24 total claims for pothole damage in the cities of Wausau, Stevens Point, and Marshfield over the last five years.

In Wausau, there were 12 claims related to damage from driving over potholes totaling nearly $26,000. All of the claims were denied.

In Stevens Point, there were three claims from 2017 through 2022. No reported damage totals were reported, but each of the claims were denied.

In Marshfield, there were 9 claims filed in that same window. One claim is pending, two claims were for potholes that were not on city property, four were denied, but two were paid. The information provided only included the amounts that were paid to claimants, which were $105.50 in 2020 and $287.17 in 2021.

“There was no just putting a temporary on it needed to be fully replaced.”

Nathaniel Bremer got his pothole claim paid in Marshfield. He stands along a street he drives...
Nathaniel Bremer got his pothole claim paid in Marshfield. He stands along a street he drives on nearly every day that has been so rattled with potholes and fractures that there are signs asking drivers to slow down.(WSAW)

The latter claim belongs to Nathaniel Bremer. He was driving his daughters to school along his usual route on June 1 when he got to the intersection of W Upham and N St. Josephs Ave. and hit a pothole.

“It actually punctured the side of my tire, giving me just enough time to have my children to race out of the car, dropping them off at school, and getting to the car dealership.”

He happens to work for a dealership, which sent him a car to get to work and worked on repairing the damage the same day. He said his boss encouraged him to make a claim with the city that day. Bremer started by calling Marshfield’s street department.

“She kind of chuckled and said, ‘You’re the third one today to call me.”

She directed him to call city hall to make the claim. He was told to send in a write-up about the incident with the repair order, along with his receipt for the repairs. He got the reimbursement from the city about two weeks later.

However, as noted above, this outcome is rare.

The process is, basically, the same for each municipality as laid out in state law. The standard protocol is that the municipality sends the claim to its insurance or financial supervisor to determine whether the claim should be paid. Some municipalities send that recommendation to a particular board or committee. In most circumstances where claims are approved, it is usually based on the municipality’s insurance provider saying the city was negligent.

“If the city believes they’re negligent in some way, like we knew there was this gaping pothole that you could fit a Buick in and we chose to do nothing about it, that’s one thing,” Mayor Wiza explained. “But if it’s standard things that happen every single year… we don’t have the ability to fix them real well, in the winter.”

“When it comes to the city’s liability with potholes, it’s our job to make sure we’re taking care of them in a timely fashion,” Kraege stated. “So, when we get those complaints, we get them on our list, and we get out there and get them taken care of.”

The department keeps a running list and map of pothole repair spots that city personnel either notice or that are called in on their pothole hotline (call 715-261-6960). With 526 lane miles or 266 street miles throughout the city and thousands of potholes every year, the public works department typically handles the repairs in zones. For example, they may be scheduled to handle potholes on the east side of the city along the main roads for the day. Kraege said his crews also fill big potholes while they are out regardless if they are on the list.

This spring, Wausau is adding an asphalt recycler to its fleet. This will allow crews to use the more-effective hot mix year-round rather than using cold mix while they wait for asphalt plants to open for the season.

As roads are rebuilt or repaired, the city collects and grinds up the old asphalt. The hot mix, Kraege explained, also allows the material to stick and seal to the pothole, making for a more permanent solution.

“It’ll help because then instead of sending the crews out, you know, six, eight, 10 times in a year hopefully, we go out there once and we can get through a year so before we gotta go back.”

The city council recently approved raising the asphalt budget as well, allowing public works to be able to make progress on their road maintenance schedule rather than just create temporary fixes.

In Stevens Point, the city rolled out something called an infrared patcher last year.

This photo was captured last year when Stevens Point rolled out its new infrared patcher. It...
This photo was captured last year when Stevens Point rolled out its new infrared patcher. It patches potholes by operating crews filling the holes and reheating the asphalt around the hole to create a fresh bond.(WSAW Tom Zurawski)

“We heat up an entire area around the hole, like kind of revitalizing all of the asphalt, making it warm again, so it’s pliable, then put more material in and then pack it down. So now everything is bonding a little bit better,” Mayor Wiza explained.

He said the goal is to be able to slow the number of potholes created by making a better patch in the first place.

“We shouldn’t have to be doing it every single year now, because we’re making the patch better. So, we should actually gain some ground on our pothole repairs in spring.”

Municipalities, counties, and the state encourage people to report potholes when they come across them. Municipalities also caution people to drive at the appropriate speed, keep an appropriate distance between themselves and the vehicle in front of them so they can see the road, and possibly avoid driving over a pothole.

If your vehicle is damaged by a pothole, reach out to the appropriate jurisdiction that road falls in to file a claim. Document the damage, repair, and incident. As Bremer noted, the municipality will reimburse approved claimants for costs, they will not pay the bill ahead of any repairs. As past claimants have experienced, chances are your claim will be denied.

“If you’re not satisfied with that, you have a couple of options,” Wiza explained. “You can contact your own insurance company to file the claim, and your insurance company will then decide whether or not to pursue action with the city’s insurance company. Or, you can take the matter to court, but again, in court, the judge will decide whether or not the city was negligent.”