Best of 2011: The sorry state of Seattle's streets

The crisis in repairing pavement of our streets has been getting worse for 25 years. City data shows just how bad the problem has become.

Crosscut archive image.

A crew works on fixing a Seattle street.

The crisis in repairing pavement of our streets has been getting worse for 25 years. City data shows just how bad the problem has become.

Editor's Note: In the run-up to the new year, Crosscut is sharing ten days of its best stories from 2011, each with a different theme. Today we are looking at some of our coverage of transportation. This story first appeared in August, shortly before the City Council decided on what to include in a levy request to voters. The Proposition 1 package put together by the council failed by a large margin, in part because some voters felt it did too little to deal with road problems the city faces and put too much into new efforts, like streetcar planning.

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.

The council has been signaling that it is inclined toward sending a smaller proposal to voters in November: $60 might be likelier than $80 to achieve voter approval in these hard times, and the term for these new fees should not be indefinite but subject to voter approval for renewal after eight years. Very preliminary contours began to emerge in the council’s discussion about what citizens might see if that fee were passed by voters and the money came in on top of the proceeds from the $20 fee already approved. Altogether the total would be about $27 million a year.

Taking account of the proposals in the draft council resolution now at hand, only about a quarter of it, $7 million a year, would be spread across the spectrum of paving needs: more pothole repairs, a little spot re-paving, perhaps a few more miles a year of significant street reinvestment. A bit less than $9 million a year would be spent on projects, strongly favored by Metro Transit, that would help buses move more quickly and reliably through traffic, make existing transit more convenient for people to get to and use, and to improve the trolley network.

These sums would no doubt be spent well on pavement and transit, seemingly the public’s highest priorities. For example, sections of 23rd Avenue E, or Holman Road in Ballard, or Delridge Way, might see paving work in 2013, sooner than in any other case. Yet there are not sufficient funds in either arena really to jump the needle in a positive direction in the problem areas where needs are most acute.

None of the proposals for spending the rest of the money, almost $12 million a year, is devoid of appeal. But the rule of a little something for everyone seems to pinch against hard-nosed prioritization that would drive scarce dollars to most urgent needs. Bicycle facilities would be in for 10 percent of the total pie and pedestrian and neighborhood street fund projects at about twice that share. Even where the council seems to signal skepticism contrasting with the Mayor’s enthusiasm, three quarters of a million dollars a year would be spent probably planning an expensive streetcar line or two for which no ultimate funding plan is on the horizon. Now citizens and the advocates for every manner of special transportation investment will weigh in. The contentiousness of such decisions about prioritization is clearly exacerbated by the current atmosphere of fiscal stress and voter discontent.

The biggest discouragement in all this, of course, is that it is so extraordinarily and disastrously expensive to wait until pavements are really bad to fix them — precisely the course Seattle is on and really won’t correct at the levels of revenue and spending now under consideration at the Council. An excellent recent report from the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, the San Francisco Bay Area’s counterpart to the Puget Sound Regional Council, suggests that pavement renovation for a roadway still in Fair condition that would cost one dollar, skyrockets to five dollars when the pavement has deteriorated to the bottom of the Poor category. What’s more, timely, lower-cost pavement repairs result in fewer greenhouse gas emissions over the life of the roadway because less asphalt must be used and less roadway work must be done with heavy trucks and construction equipment that major reconstruction requires. Smoother roads actually produce better fuel economy for the vehicles that use them, too.

Clear thinking about pavement and their importance also must reckon with these inconvenient facts, according to the San Francisco report: a single delivery vehicle puts the same stress on pavement as 442 SUV trips; a semi/big rig equals the stress of 4,500 SUVs; a bus equals the stress of 7,774 SUVs; and a garbage truck the stress of 9,343 SUVs.

As is almost always true in crises of deteriorating infrastructure, the problem offers little drama because the build-up of the backlog takes so long. The crisis of Seattle street maintenance has been in view for 25 years or more. In 1983, then Councilmember Norm Rice sponsored a bond issue that would have raised $150 million for street repairs. Today’s streets would not be in their current condition had that kind of investment been made at that time. A majority of voters agreed; but 60 percent was required for passage and the measure failed. A year later a much smaller bond issue passed but with only a paltry $5 million for streets.

In 1992, Mayor Rice and Councilmember Martha Choe with the support of the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce relied on new state legislative authorization to push through a street utility tax on property owners. The law went into effect, but then it was thrown out by the State Supreme Court; expectations dried up for addressing what then was said to be a $70 million backlog of work on transportation facilities. Mayor Rice gave it another shot in 1997 for a $90 million bond for streets; more than half the voters approved, but again it fell just short of the required 60 percent. By then the street maintenance backlog was calculated at over $400 million. Finally, in 2006, going the route of a levy to fund improvements pay-as-you-go rather than through an upfront bond sale, Mayor Greg Nickels lined up the votes for Bridging the Gap — though much scaled back from his threshold proposal and therefore another half measure in relation to overall need.

Seattle’s predicament, moreover, is more the norm than the exception among sister cities. Seattle’s own scoring for its arterials ranks it about on par with San Francisco’s arterials. Portland has almost precisely the same lane miles of arterial streets as Seattle, a similar pothole political storm, and a similar $600 million scale of deferred street maintenance with no funding plan in view. Leave it to Portland to generate Seattle’s envy, however; last year Portland launched its own iPhone app for pothole reporting. Meanwhile, data collected statewide in Washington shows that cities’ arterial pavement conditions dropped from 2006 to 2008 and again from 2008 to 2010. The Washington cities data shows Seattle a bit better than an average dragged down by very low scores from the likes of Aberdeen, Bremerton, Enumclaw, Kirkland, Lynnwood, and Oak Harbor. It rates about the same as Bellevue, better than Tacoma and Vancouver, and not as good as Bellingham, Everett, Olympia, and Spokane.

King County Road Services reports pavement conditions deteriorated markedly from 2007 to 2009, and 110 miles of major and minor arterials have less than ten years of remaining useful life, needing reconstruction at an annual investment of $22 million recurring for a span of 20 years. Preventive maintenance for King County is a bad story: in 2009, 66 percent of its drainage ditches needed to be cleaned, 52 percent of its catch basins were clogged, and gravel shoulders that should be graded every year were on a cycle to be graded every 25 years.

State highway pavements in Washington have seen funding cuts for preservation work by 27 percent since 2000 with the result that from 2008 to 2009, the percentage of pavements in fair and good condition declined slightly and the percentage in poor condition increased. The negative trend was most pronounced on the concrete pavements predominating on WSDOT’s most heavily traveled interstates. Just to hold ground at the current level of pavement maintenance backlog will cost $1.7 billion over the next ten years, an amount far in excess of any existing budget expectation. The rehabilitation requirements for I-5 in Greater Seattle have mega-project financial dimensions for which only a tiny fraction of funding has been identified.

Amidst such a gloomy picture can only be offered this bit of hard-earned wisdom: At local, state, and national levels there is one simple, instructive beacon when it comes to figuring out where precious transportation investment should go: Fix It First. Funding for system preservation of eligible infrastructure assets is essential. Do not be pulled into staggering costs by improvident deferral of basic infrastructure re-investment in facilities already built. It’s true for highways and bridges; it’s true for transit systems and for their vehicle fleets; for that matter it’s true in water and sewer systems and in schools, courthouses and prisons.

The sanest of publications on national transportation policy, from the Hamilton Project Transportation Report of the Brookings Institution to the Bipartisan Policy Center’s National Transportation Policy Project to Smart Growth America’s Repair Priorities to even the Natural Resources Defense Council blogs on the need for critical repairs to transportation systems, all agree. What’s true at the national level has equal or more pressing application in the states: soon here in Washington the discussion of state transportation revenue resources and needs will turn directly to this issue in the need to fund preservation backlogs everywhere in the state as well as on the ferry system.

At the municipal level here in Seattle, the current license fee increase discussion squarely puts the issue where it’s closest to where people live, the infrastructure they use every day, and the taxes their local officials raise and spend. The proposals now at hand before the Seattle City Council have the merit of acknowledging the need and directing at least some — but not enough — resources in the right direction. But even a single dollar less for pavement, or for bus speed and reliability gains, than in the draft resolution before the council would be a weakening of the proposal. And every dollar added to the preservation share would yield a cost-effective increase in the value and benefits that transportation systems offer all citizens.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Doug MacDonald

Douglas MacDonald

Doug MacDonald is a pedestrian activist who once served as the Secretary of Transportation for Washington state.