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.
The total was just a few lane miles higher in the previous survey in 2007. Rehab work in the three-year interval (for example on Second, Third, and Fourth Avenues in downtown Seattle and Fauntleroy Avenue SW in West Seattle) pulled some sections to higher ratings, while on-going deterioration dragged others down. Bottom line: no appreciable net improvement.
As for the non-arterials including most residential streets, the total lane-mile count stands at 2,412. The picture drawn for these streets by SDOT borders on the surreal. SDOT is spending essentially no money on the pavements. not even to survey them. About half are concrete streets that SDOT suggests have an expected life of 40-60 years. It’s hard to know exactly how the following number would be calculated, but SDOT reports that the current maintenance cycle is greater than 5,000 years, about 500 years longer than the Great Pyramid at Giza has been waiting for rehabilitation. Half the rest are asphalt with an expected pavement life of 20-30 years; Seattle’s current maintenance cycle is greater than 500 years.
There must be some dark humor in juxtaposing these facts with Seattle’s aspirations to be a sustainable city; sustainability is not consistent with presiding over the deterioration and decay of civic infrastructure. For these streets on which most people live, It would take $25 million a year for 20 years just to bring the maintenance cycle for these streets closer to the life expectancies for the concrete and asphalt and an uncalculated and larger amount to fix the streets that are significantly deteriorated.
The Bridging the Gap levy in 2006 promised that Seattle residents would see money used for paving arterials. But it was never advertised as more than a stopgap levy and it didn’t promise much: on the order of 200 lane miles total over nine years. Compare that with the 400 lane miles rated in 2010 as needing major work, and it’s easy to see that the SDOT paving program to keep the promise to voters — 27 lane miles in 2007, 41 lane miles in 2009, 28 lane miles in 2009, 32 lane miles in 2010, 24 miles hoped for in 2011 — isn’t hammering out much of the dent, so to speak. That’s at an expected annual level of pay-as-you-go fiscal effort supported by Bridging the Gap of about $20-25 million. It’s far short of the estimated $37 million for enough re-paving and reconstruction just to arrest the half-billion dollar arterial deferred maintenance backlog from getting bigger and the condition of pavements continuing to get worse.
Meanwhile, $4 million annually has to be thrown into the potholes repairs, another $1.5 million into spot re-paving. This inordinate maintenance spending now results in deferral of other preventive street maintenance, just compounding the deterioration of every thing from traffic signals to street signage and lane striping.
By next Tuesday the Seattle City Council will have to decide on sending a motor vehicle license fee add-on to voters in November. The council took up the recommendation of a Citizens Transportation Advisory Committee that has met since last spring to suggest spending guidelines for a proposed $80 annual vehicle license fee increase. That would be on top of the $20 increase the council already has approved. Survey results from 400 phone interviews across the city were pretty telling. Top of the lists for the most transportation investment? Paving streets and repairing potholes. Most important transportation issue facing Seattle? Inadequate transit. One of the guiding principles adopted by the committee was “Protect what we have; at the very least don’t let it get worse.” The committee recommended a potpourri, including about a fifth of the proceeds of the $80 increase for pavement, a fifth of the proceeds for bicycle and pedestrian improvements and a third of the money for planning and implementing transit route investments possibly including streetcar or rail improvements.
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