For Heather Redfern, a trip to the Target store turned out to be far costlier than she planned.

On the way home from the store, near the Neshaminy Mall, in Bucks County, she had an unfortunate encounter with that late-winter nemesis - the pothole.

"Some of them you hit, and you just cringe and hope nothing bad happened to your car," said Redfern, who works in SEPTA's media-relations department.

In this case, hope wasn't enough. Redfern needed a new tire, wheel, and valve stem - for $550.

Winter was a late starter this year, and so was the thaw, and thus the annual pothole harvest was pushed back a bit, particularly in contrast to last year.

But right now, aspiring asphalt canyons are ambushing tires throughout the region. And the weekend rains and the return of cold air due this week won't help with the patch work.

The Philadelphia Streets Department reports that it has already filled more than 12,000 potholes since the start of the year.

"AAA Mid-Atlantic has been rescuing stranded motorists with flat tires throughout the Philadelphia area all week," AAA spokeswoman Jana Tidwell said Thursday.

In the previous week, calls for flat tires actually outnumbered those for dead batteries - "a rare occurrence" - she said.

In South Jersey, AAA says, road calls in March, likely driven by potholes, have been 50 percent higher than they were last year. And 2014, by all accounts, was a banner year for those hubcap-popping, chassis-jolting road mines.

"This year is definitely worse," Chris Handzus, 19, of Coatesville, said as he waited to get a tire and rim changed on his Ford Explorer at the Mr. Tire Auto Service Center on Lincoln Highway in Downingtown.

"There are just strips of them everywhere," Handzus said.

"Every street in Coatesville City is bad," said David Norcini, the fourth-generation owner of Norcini Auto Body in King of Prussia, who himself lost a chunk of a tire to a pothole.

Annually, potholes cause almost $5.4 billion in motor-vehicle damage across the nation, according to industry officials.

This evidently has been a peculiar pothole season, certainly different from last year's. Lamb-like weather was slow to arrive in March after persistent February cold that put any serious thawing on ice.

So far this season, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation has spread only about a third of the patching asphalt that it did last year, spokesman Charlie Metzger said.

However, last season's 68 inches of snow, No. 2 in the period of record, came earlier than this winter's and was interspersed with warm days, resulting in an early start to the pothole festival.

This year, the worst may be yet to come.

That wouldn't be particularly welcome for PennDot, which already has spent $32.9 million on road maintenance this winter, well beyond the budgeted $25.9 million. Official snowfall so far is only 23.3 inches in Philadelphia. However, nuisance snow and ice storms have resulted in tremendous salt use.

Metzger, however, said that being over budget wouldn't stop PennDot from doing what is necessary.

He said three new asphalt recyclers, which mix old road material gathered from around a pothole with newer asphalt, might help keep costs down.

Steve Clarke, manager of the Tires Etc. store in West Chester, said PennDot and local crews had done "a great job patching" and had made his drive home to Chester Springs bearable. He said that while the roads were "bad . . . last year they were 10 times worse."

In Philadelphia, the Streets Department said it tried to have potholes repaired within three days of receiving reports.

"The repair effort is going well with the milder weather," said June Cantor, a spokeswoman for the Streets Department.

For her part, SEPTA's Redfern evidently was prepared to accept her pothole misfortune.

"I guess my luck just ran out," she said.

BY THE NUMBERS

$27B

Pothole-related

damage nationally

over the last five years.

$32.9M

PennDot spending

on winter road repair.

$25.9M

PennDot budget

for road repair.

30

Tons of hot patch used per week this winter

in Camden County.

12,158

Potholes filled

in Philadelphia

so far this year.

1,408

Gloucester County potholes repaired from Jan. 1 to March 11.

300,000

Potholes NJDOT expects to fill this year.

SOURCES: N.J. and Pa. Transportation Departments; AAA.

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Pothole Strategy

The AAA auto club offers these suggestions to avoid pothole damage to your vehicles:

Keep an eye on traffic patterns.

Cars that slow down or move quickly to other lanes may be a sign of major potholes or road damage ahead.

Beware of water, snow, or ice that may be concealing

a deep pothole.

Report major potholes or road damage to your state or local transportation department.

Avoid swerving, which can cause a loss of vehicle control.

Slow down. Carefully avoid sharp impact with potholes.

Roll through. Rolling through the pothole is better than braking rapidly.

Inflate tires properly. Overinflated and under-

inflated tires increase risk of tire and wheel damage.

EndText

jmoritz@phillynews.com 610-313-8105 @JCMoritzTU