City crew working on the street
Last year around this time, Lincoln experienced -30 degree lows. With the temperatures this year, a city road repair crew is able to work on crack sealing. Photo courtesy of Lincoln Transportation and Utilities.

The Lincoln Transportation and Utilities Department has seized an opportunity, completing an increased amount of road repairs during the unseasonably warm winter. 

During the winter, the department’s Operations and Maintenance Division typically focuses its attention on clearing the roads of ice and snow while keeping an eye on any mild temperatures on the horizon. 

This year, however, the crew has been able to keep working on traditional maintenance and repair work such as crack sealing. 

Since the start of November, city crews have crack and joint sealed over 1,100 lane blocks (one lane of a city block) of streets. Those preservation numbers are typically zero or near zero during that same time span.

“We’re getting more lasting, impactful work done,” Tim Byrne, maintenance operations manager, said.

Byrne said that an increase of crack sealing helps seal the street so precipitation can’t build up below and create potholes during freeze-thaw cycles.

Not only does the work increase the life expectancy of the streets, it’s also cheaper for the city than having to fight winter weather. 

Crack Sealing Close Up - Road maintenance increases in Lincoln during warm, dry winter
Crack sealing is the number one lowest cost, highest return on investment strategy to prolong the health of the streets, Byrne said. Photo courtesy of Lincoln Transportation and Utilities.

Crack sealing is the number one lowest cost, highest return on investment strategy to prolong the health of the streets, Byrne said. Photo courtesy of Lincoln Transportation and Utilities.

However, the warm temperatures have been accompanied by almost no precipitation. 

Since November, Lincoln has received 3.7 inches of precipitation. On average, by the end of February, Lincoln has received 20.4 inches of precipitation. Lincoln is currently right on the edge of being in a moderate drought. The lack of precipitation is a cause of concern for Byrne.

“​​It is darn dry,” Byrne said. “Whether you’re gardening or growing crops or trying to maintain infrastructure, that moisture in the ground is critical. When that ground starts to dry out, crack and move, it has other impacts on our infrastructure when it moves like that.”

The dry soil can impact bridge abutments and approach slabs, causing vehicles to dip, hit a bump and feel a jolt before or after they cross the bridge. 

Miki Esposito, senior policy adviser to Lincoln Mayor Leirion Gaylor Baird, said that while the better infrastructure will be more efficient in the long run, the repairs could also impact the city negatively.

“When you have a road closure, it’s obviously going to slow people down,” Esposito said when talking about the road repairs. “They’re going to idle more and their traditional cars that’s fossil fueled rather than electric can leave a heavy carbon footprint, and it can really create an exacerbated, frustrated public because they’re sitting in traffic or having to follow detours.”

Esposito also said the warmer temperatures can lead to challenges for the city’s economy.

“You’re also spending more taxpayer dollars and investing them earlier than you would have normally under a normal climate scenario,” Esposito said. “Emergency response, pothole repair and winter operations, these are expensive endeavors, and so the more fluctuations we have with climate, the more chaotic it can be for a city to manage budgets.”

Breckin Peters, a business major at Southeast Community College, lives in the Haymarket and has to commute across town to get to class. He said while repairs can make his drive longer, he thinks it’s the right thing to do.

“I think it’s taking advantage of a bad thing,” Peters said. “If we can do it, we should, but obviously, the reason we can do it is bad. They’re not changing the climate change course or anything, but if the temperatures are rising and we can do more projects, then by all means, it makes sense.”

Cody Frederick is a fifth-year student majoring in sports media, journalism and broadcasting while minoring in business administration and horticulture at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He is from a small town in Northeast Nebraska called Winside.