Public agencies relish documenting with numbers what might be taken for their good-news accomplishments. Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT), for example, relates in its report for 2010 that it filled 10,124 potholes. That’s a lot more potholes filled than in 2009, when the tally was just 6,504. In 2011, Seattle has already allocated to street maintenance a one-time $3 million windfall from a land sale in order to fill 5,000 extra potholes. Mayor McGinn’s blog just announced that SDOT’s nine pothole crews had already filled 19,851 potholes for the first half of 2011.
All previous records will be smashed. But it’s truly a dubious achievement, since anyone encountering our city’s “Walk, Bike, Ride” transportation slogan knows that Seattle’s dismal street conditions — virtual sidewalks, crumbling curbs, broken pavements, rutted transit routes — mock the mantra. And if you should still have any interest in driving a car, prepare for the shocks. You’re going to need new ones a lot sooner than you had probably hoped. Maybe you’ll be able to file a street-defect claim against the city; Seattle settled two-thirds more damage claims from potholes in 2010 than in 2008.
Recently SDOT got beyond the pothole counts to release the numbers that really matter: the 2010 report on Seattle’s pavement conditions. The news was grim, but not surprising. Streets really are falling apart and there are a lot more potholes ahead — tens or even hundreds of thousands at the rate we are going.
But the worst of it is how many streets unnecessarily are already in or fast heading for the dreary realm of their pavement life cycle where they require major reconstruction, not just routine regular repair. When deterioration goes more than surface deep, the future costs to put things right go through the roof. Filling potholes doesn’t fix the problem. That’s just slapping band-aids on the symptomatic skin blisters of the underlying disease, rather than making prudent reinvestment to forestall the baleful, expensive progression of pavement aging.
You can skip this paragraph if you already know there is an international uniform standard protocol, used by SDOT and many other road agencies, for judging road pavement condition into six categories: “Good,” “Satisfactory,” and “Fair” condition ratings mean that pavements just need routine maintenance. “Poor” condition means the onset of notable deterioration: major regular maintenance like asphalt overlays or new concrete panels is required. “Very Poor” means the street has to be expensively reconstructed, often right from the subbase under the surface pavement. “Serious or Failed:” Well, that’s bad. If you need more information, check out Standard D6433-09 of ASTM International, formerly known as the American Society for Testing and Materials. Or, refer to the manual the pavement engineers use to name what’s happening before your eyes as joint spalling or alligator cracking or traverse cracking or raveling or more, and call in to tell SDOT if the severity is low, medium, or high. In Seattle, you can see it all.
The newly released 2010 pavement condition ratings from SDOT only cover the arterial streets. That’s 1,541 lane miles of pavement. Generally these are the busiest and most important streets; it’s the only pavement SDOT had money to evaluate.
Here are some of the returns. Fifty-seven lane miles are in the dismal category, “Serious or Failed.” 138 additional lane miles are rated “Very Poor.” Together, that reaches 195 lane miles or almost 13 percent of the total system of arterials. Portions of Market Street in Ballard, 23rd and 24th in the Central District, NW 85th in Greenwood,, and Delridge Way in West Seattle are part of a list of 10 especially bad locations SDOT hands out. Another 205 miles are rated “Poor": major work required. This means SDOT has tallied up a total of significantly distressed pavement reaching 400 lane miles or over a quarter of the lane miles of the entire inventory of arterials in the city.
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