Street maintenance really isn’t rocket science, it’s more like a vending machine. What you get out depends on how much you put in. Sure, there’s some engineering involved in street maintenance, but it’s not nearly as complicated as water or sewer engineering. Honestly, more than any other service area, it’s all about the money. And like many cities, that’s been a challenge in Kent.
I’ve yet to work in a place that ever really spent enough money on road maintenance. There are actually sophisticated computer programs that can calculate how much road repair work the city should do each in order to ensure the quality of streets — and if you know how much you should be doing each year, you can calculate how much that will cost, which should then (in a perfect world) be your street repair budget.
As I said, I’ve never been anywhere where we actually hit the street budget target, but I will say that different cities handle street financing differently. I hate to say it, but one of the telltale signs of trouble is when you hear cities use assessments to finance street repairs. 9 times out of 10, that spells funding shortage and poor streets.
Now, we do have other capital funding sources for roadway maintenance in Kent but we also rely on assessments when things get too bad. I’ve had assessments in other cities but we eventually got rid of them because the price dynamics just don’t work. Believe it or not, cities don’t want their residents to be mad at them — really, it’s true. So what happens is that cities wait, and wait, and delay and defer, the inevitable assessment because they’re really not up for another neighborhood battle. Each year the city waits and delays, the price goes up and the conditions get worse.
The theory is, eventually the street gets so bad, that the residents finally throw their hands up in the air and concede (albeit very reluctantly) to do an assessment just because they can’t take it anymore. The city then, trying to show some sensitivity to the resident’s pocketbook tries to do as little as possible. The end result is, the citizens are worn out and a chunk of change poorer, the city is the bad guy, and the street is usually a bit better, but not as much better as it could have been.
Do this a couple of times and pretty soon everyone agrees that the process is very stressful, so all the parties do their best to avoid getting sucked into it. Meanwhile, the street gets worse.
I’m not saying that this is exactly what happens in Kent, but I’m guessing it’s not that much different here from my other cities. What I learned was that assessments sound good on paper, but in the real world, they rarely work as neatly as planned. I’ve actually become more of an advocate for bumping the taxes or fees up just a smidge, and set that money aside for street repairs every year.
Building street repairs into the regular budget (rather than the episodic use of assessments) lets the engineers run their formula’s, do their forecasts, and make the repairs when they need to be done rather than waiting for the streets to get so bad that people can’t take it any more.
Yes, you’ve got to have smart engineers and skilled workers — but in the end it’s all about how much cash you have ready to be used for street repairs. I completely understand the logic behind street assessments and I subscribe to the old adage “he who benefits from the work, pays for it” but I’ve just seen it break down in the real world so many times that I consider it well-conceived but poor performing — and when it comes to streets, it’s all about performance.
Anyways, forgive me for my diatribe, but I do think it’s an issue the city needs to re-evaluate since by far every election the number one campaign issue is street condition. (Before you overreact and think that means our streets are worse than everybody else, I’ll also tell you that streets have been the number one election issue in every community I’ve ever worked in.)
In the meantime, here’s a good question and answer with the City’s Public Service Director about how he manages street repairs:
1 – “How does your community fund road repair/resurfacing?”
The City of Kent uses a portion of its General Funds to pay for road maintenance.
2 – “How much does your community receive annually for road needs?”
In the past, the City of Kent expends approximately $500,000 annually for road maintenance. In 2007 and 2008 the City is using the funds typically programmed for road maintenance to off set the cost of a major bridge project and therefore will not have road maintenance programs in those years. The City has cooperated financially over the past two years with the Ohio Department of Transportation during the resurfacing of SR43 and SR59 within the City limits.
3 – A – “How much does your community spend annually on road repair/resurfacing?
In the past, the City of Kent expends approximately $500,000 for road maintenance.
3 – B – “Is it enough to cover the community’s needs?”
Community needs are a very dynamic venue. When you call for a police officer to make a report and are delayed in his/her arrival the need would be defined as not enough police. There is always a short fall in resources and never a lack of request for service and this too is experienced with regards to the City’s streets.
4 – “How many miles of roads are located in your town?”
Total Centerline Miles: 114.69-miles
Total Lane Miles: 243.91-miles
5 – A – “Does your town have a road repair/repaving program?”
5 – B – “If so, what is the program? For example: “The town has determined what roads are in need of repair and have ranked them in order of need. The town then repairs/repaves one road a year.”
The City of Kent uses a program developed by the United States Army Corps of Engineers called Micro-Paver. The program provides for conversion of visual inspection information into a Pavement Condition Index (PCI). The PCI is used to select that pavement sections that are included in each years pavement maintenance program. Micro-Paver provides for planning pavement maintenance programs into the future as the software predicts PCI.
6 – “If your town doesn’t have a program, how do you determine what roads are in need of repair/repaving, and which one should be repaired/repaved first?”
7 – “On average, how often does your town receive Issue II money?”
The City of Kent typically receives a grant annually. For the past decade, the City has applied for funding for storm water improvements.
8 – “When your community receives Issue II money, does your community have troubles coming up with its share?”
The City of Kent has a Storm Water Utility, which provides matching funds for Issue II grants.
9 – “Has your town ever passed on Issue II awards because there wasn’t enough money to match the grant?”
If I can be of any further assistance regarding this or any other matter please feel free to contact me at your earliest convenience.
Eugene K. Roberts, P.E.