Rough ride: One-third of Seattle's arterial streets are in poor shape

Backlogged paving maintenance costs grew to $900 million in 2013.
Backlogged paving maintenance costs grew to $900 million in 2013.

Potholes, broken or cracked pavement, rutted lanes. These are some of the ailments that afflict Seattle's roughest arterial streets.

A recently completed Seattle Department of Transportation assessment found that about 36 percent of the city's 490 miles of arterials were in some form of poor condition last year. That number is up from 26 percent in 2010 and is higher than any other year SDOT has evaluated since 2003. The proportion of city arterials in the worst shape more than doubled between 2010 and 2013. 

The costs associated with undone repair work are also stacking up. Back in 2010, the amount of money required to take care of SDOT's backlog of deferred paving maintenance totaled just over $570 million. By last year, the figure had ballooned to about $900 million.

The explanation for the growing backlog is simple enough.

"The rate of deterioration of the pavement is exceeding what we're spending on repairs," said Elizabeth Sheldon, SDOT’s Director of Street Maintenance.

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The percentage of Seattle arterial streets in seriously poor or failed condition more than doubled between 2010 and 2013. Source: SDOT

The city's budget for its two major paving programs was $17.9 million in 2013 and $16.1 million in 2014. In both years, SDOT allocated an additional $2 million for pothole repairs. Since 2007, the city's voter-approved Bridging the Gap levy has funded most of the city's major repaving projects. While repair needs have still outpaced maintenance efforts, the levy has helped to keep street conditions better than they might have become.

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The city's Arterial Asphalt and Concrete Program, which involves major paving projects, has been largely funded with money from the Bridging the Gap levy since 2007. Source: SDOT

At the end of next year, the funding measure is set to expire.

"I anticipate we will have to go to the voters again," Tom Rasmussen, who chairs the City Council's Transportation Committee, said last week as he discussed the $365 million property tax levy. "It really has filled a huge need." 

Rasmussen, who is also on the Bridging the Gap oversight committee, added that he would be comfortable telling voters "you've trusted us with this money and here's what we've done."

The city's arterials deteriorated even as overall traffic declined. SDOT estimates the average citywide traffic volume each year using vehicle counts taken at 19 bridges. Between 2006 and 2012, the average amount of daily vehicle traffic went down by about 7 percent, based on these estimates. But high traffic volumes are not the only contributor to wear and tear.

"There are certain vehicles that put tremendously heavy loads on your roadways," said Larry Galehouse, director of the National Center for Pavement Preservation at Michigan State University. He noted tractor-trailers and garbage trucks, as well as buses, which are a primary mode of mass transit in Seattle. "It really accelerates the wear."

Galehouse said that a rough rule of thumb is that one loaded tractor-trailer can cause the same amount of road wear as approximately 9,600 automobiles.

Some of Seattle's older streets were not designed to handle those types of loads.

"A street built in the 1920's, no one anticipated the size of the buses that would be on it now," said SDOT's Sheldon.

Seattle is not the only city dealing with rough streets. Last October, a nonprofit research group called TRIP, ranked urban areas based on the share of their roadways in poor condition. Seattle was near the middle of the pack, according to the group, which is sponsored by insurance companies, equipment manufacturers, construction firms, and other organizations with ties to the road-building industry.

Among 20 metropolitan regions with more than 500,000 people, Seattle ranked 12th, meaning that eleven of the other cities TRIP ranked had a higher proportion of streets in bad condition. TRIP's analysis relied on 2011 Federal Highway Administration survey data and included not only locally maintained streets, but also state roads running through each urban area. A report the group issued earlier this year estimated that driving on rough roads costs the average Seattle motorist $625 annually in extra vehicle operating expenses.

"There's a significant cost to the consumer," said TRIP's director of policy and research, Rocky Moretti.

What are some examples of those costs? Tom Parker, whose family has owned Ballard Automotive Repair since 1952, said that hitting a big pothole might result in a damaged control arm, tie-rod end, ball joint or strut, or it might knock a vehicle out of alignment. Replacing a control arm, he said, might cost anywhere from $300 to $500 depending on the car.

"It can wreak havoc on a vehicle," he said, referring to driving on rough roads.

Preventative street maintenance is often one of the smarter ways a city can spend its roadwork dollars, according to Galehouse at the National Center for Pavement Preservation. "The best investments are those that are proactive rather than reactive," he said. "If we only address the worst roads first, the good roads will become bad too."

Galehouse acknowledged that most local transportation departments operate under tight budget constraints, while facing public pressure to fix obvious trouble spots.

That said, he adds: "It costs a lot of money to go out and repair a pothole only to find it needing repair in a week or so again." And in the long run, preventative maintenance can also cause fewer delays. "When a road gets so far gone that it needs major construction," he said, "it's a huge disruption to the motorist."

Sealing cracks in pavement and applying "microsurfacing" seal coats, which toughen the road surface and increase its friction, are two methods Galehouse mentioned as good preventative maintenance options.

SDOT's Sheldon said the agency uses crack sealant. And this summer SDOT is applying microsurfacing to residential streets in West Seattle's Arbor Heights neighborhood.

These methods, however, are not always enough. Some of the roadways that are in extremely poor condition are past the point where basic maintenance, or even a couple inches of fresh pavement can help.

"You obviously can't do preventive maintenance on something that needs reconstruction," Sheldon said.

About 10.2 percent of the city's arterials were in seriously poor or failed condition, according to SDOT's assessment. These streets would be prime candidates for reconstruction. The proportion of the city's arterials classified in this condition in 2010 was just 3.7 percent.

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A car heads toward a pothole while driving over cracked pavement on Northwest Market Street in Ballard. Photo: Bill Lucia

Portions of Northwest Market Street in Ballard and some of the northern sections of Third Avenue are examples of street segments in need of substantial repairs.

Sheldon acknowledged that financial realities can largely dictate how many streets get fixed. 

"I would love to say that paving is the most important thing in the city," she said. "But we'll always have needs to balance."

Moretti, at TRIP, noted that bumpy roads can be more than just a nuisance to drivers.

"It's a signal to the broader business community whether this is a region that's keeping up or a region that's a falling behind," he said. "The further you fall behind, the more difficult it becomes to keep up."

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