Storm damage: On Highway 17, a huge pothole nicknamed ‘Potzilla’ is chewing up commuters’ tires

Cars headed down Highway 17 from Scotts Valley into Santa Cruz.
Cars headed down Highway 17 from Scotts Valley into Santa Cruz.
(Chris Fusco / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Since a series of storms began on New Year’s Eve, Californians have taken to social media to share images of sinkholes and potholes. On Highway 17, a “Potzilla” in a southbound lane has caused numerous flat tires near The Cats Restaurant and Tavern in Los Gatos. A Caltrans spokesperson said workers have repaired the pothole several times in recent weeks “but the unprecedented amount of rain will just wash away the asphalt mix.”

Nicknamed “Potzilla” for its unrelenting determination to grow in size and cause flat tires, a pothole in Los Gatos on Highway 17 is wreaking havoc for commuters heading to Santa Cruz from San Jose.

A Facebook group for Highway 17 commuters with nearly 25,000 members coined the nickname for the pothole located in the southbound lanes, just south of The Cats Restaurant and Tavern. It has been patched over before and returned with a vengeance, likely as a result of the past two weeks of rainstorms eroding the road.

“Looks like the infamous pothole is back around The Cats in Los Gatos,” read one Facebook post on Friday. “Just passed five cars [with flat tires] on Highway 17 southbound.”

Other commuters posted more specifics, describing that the pothole is about 1,000 feet past the Cats and on the passenger side of the right lane.

One person wrote: The pothole had grown and “turned into a big piece of the road falling off on the right. Caltrans is working on repairing it. Saw four cars that were damaged being towed.”

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Caltrans spokesperson Pedro Quintana said in an email Friday evening that “crews have responded to that area several times” within the past few weeks. “Caltrans maintenance will fix the potholes along State Route 17 but the unprecedented amount of rain will just wash away the asphalt mix,” he added.

Quintana said Caltrans crews have been conducting maintenance patrols around the clock to search for downed trees, flooded roadways, potholes and other road hazards. He said the agency has received reports of 391 potholes in the first 12 days of this month on roadways under its jurisdiction, compared to 308 potholes for all of January 2022.

“Once we get a break from these storms that we’re expecting this weekend, our crews will go out and make those repairs,” he said.

Quintana said motorists who want to file a claim for damages of less than $10,000 because of the pothole and other road hazards can submit a customer service request or call Caltrans Bay Area in Oakland, Monday-Friday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. at (510) 286-4444.

Claims for damage greater than $10,000 are handled by the Government Claims Program in West Sacramento. Motorists can also file a service request to report potholes, street light outages, fallen trees and downed fences.

Since a series of storms began on New Year’s Eve, sinkholes and potholes have been on the minds of many in California as images shared on social media show cars swallowed by sinkholes or highways damaged when a random abyss opens suddenly in the asphalt.

Just days ago, a sinkhole formed on Highway 92 in San Mateo County, closing traffic in both directions.

UC Santa Cruz professor Gary Griggs said he thinks these issues are becoming exacerbated because of the historic rainfall. Surface runoff is easily visible but subsurface flows of water are difficult to recognize and can cause roads to collapse.

“I think what we’re seeing now is drainage beneath roads,” he said. “So whether it’s a blocked culvert, or some runoff that’s concentrated, that starts to remove the fill — the loose dirt, or sand or whatever — the road is built on, once it gets to a certain size, opening or void, the surface is going to collapse.”

Trying to predict where the next sinkhole could appear is nearly impossible where there’s not a clear flow of water next to the road that is visible, Griggs said.

“It’s not like, ‘Oh, here’s the spot we need to look at,” he said. “So it’s going to be a surprise, probably, and there’s really not a whole lot we can do about it.”

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