Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Road Maintenance

Road maintenance is a long-standing concern of the city council, and it is emerging as one of the central issues of the current election debate. Today I blog to explain the nature of the problem and talk a little bit about solutions.


The problem was clearly stated by Public Works Director Howard Denney at the June 18, 2009 city council work session. I quote from the minutes of that meeting:

Mr. Denney continued that the City did their first inventory of roads in 2001 and it showed that 80 percent of the roads had a service life of 4 to 15 years. It was projected back then that if they did not increase funding for roads, that in 2011, 50 percent would be in failure mode. Now with the PI [pressurized irrigation] installation, five years were removed from that service life. After PI, the remaining life of most of the roads in American Fork was four years. To bring [all] roads to the condition of a new road, it would take $117 million. The annual funding level that the Council wanted to put toward the roads could be entered into a program and they could then look at scenarios that would get the City where it wanted to be. Generally, the worse roads would be dealt with first. There were a number of strategies to look at.

Mayor Thompson asked Streets Superintendent TJ Warnick if other Councils have had this kind of analysis and costs placed before them.

TJ Warnick answered that to his knowledge they had not. Up until 10 years ago they were doing a combination overlay and reconstruction on a yearly basis. That was part of the reason the City was paying the price now.

Councilmember Rodeback asked what happened in 1999 that the practice was stopped.

Mr. Warnick responded that prices increased.

It should also be noted that the City discontinued all road maintenance when the PI bond passed, in anticipation of the trenching that would take place. Many have asked why the City did not consider the need for road resurfacing in the PI bond. The answer is that resurfacing was in fact considered, but would have doubled the size of a bond which, at $47.95 million, was already much too large.

So the problem today can be viewed in three different ways. It can be viewed as either of two different lump sums: the $117 million needed to resurface all roads, or the $23 million needed to resurface just the collectors and arterials. Or it can be viewed in terms of twenty-year cycles. Resurfacing one-twentieth, or five percent, of the City's 110 center-lane miles each year would cost about $5 million per year.

At present, the City's road maintenance budget -- by which I mean actual maintenance, without including wages or overhead -- is $1 million per year.

That's the problem.


Solution number one is to throw $4 million more at roads each year. This is more easily said than done. All of last year's painful, 17.14 percent property tax increase went to road maintenance, and this raised only $500,000.

The City has hopes of retiring the Meadows infrastructure bonds in 2012, freeing up additional revenue for this purpose. But even if all budget dollars so obtained were pledged to road maintenance -- a big IF, given the City's equally pressing need to maintain public safety wages at a competitive level -- this would add only an additional $700,000 to the pot.

Cuts? The City could cut all spending on the cemetery, the Fitness Center, parks and recreation, the Arts Council and the library -- eliminate these budgets entirely -- and still not raise $4 million.

Bonds? A small bond for a few key projects -- not for the entirety -- might be an option, but not in the present economy, and not until more of the City's existing bonds (library, Meadows) have been retired.

Growth? Nearly impossible to put a figure to this, until the economy picks up.

Still, I think it's conceivable that, with discipline and without raising taxes, the City could increase its spending on roads by an additional $1 million per year at some point in the next five years. Add this to the present million, and the total would equal $2 million, or forty percent of the $5 million annual need.

Clearly, money can only be part of the solution. The urgent need, in this scenario, is for strategy. Which brings us to --

Solution number two. Long-range planning. This is the same need I have rated as number one on my re-election platform. I take this occasion to remind my readers that I have pledged not to vote for any tax increase until long-range planning has been completed. Laying out the need in five-, ten- and twenty-year cycles is the first part of the solution. To this end, my colleague, Council Member Dale Gunther, called for the road inventory that was presented to the council on June 18 (see minutes quoted above). Pair this with a similar forecast of revenues for the next five, ten and twenty years, and future councils will have all the data they need to resist allocating scarce budget dollars to lower priorities.

Solution number three is to scour the road and pavement industry for money-saving technologies and best practices. To this end, I invited Dr. Spencer Guthrie, chair of BYU's pavement management program, to visit with the City's public works department last month. This was an illuminating meeting. I learned many things. For example:
  • The worst-first strategy is the worst possible strategy. Preventive maintenance is the best strategy. This may seem counter-intuitive, but the City actually gets more bang for its buck by maintaining the best roads in good condition. The worst roads won't get much worse, and they can be picked off one at a time, as funding permits.

  • American Fork is not alone in its troubles. Most of the nation's roads were built in the 1960s. Fifty years later, these roads are challenged both by increased loads and increased volumes. Meanwhile, their governments are slowly waking up to the fact that what at installation might have seemed like a one-time expenditure is actually an ongoing need.

  • While it is possible to assess a road's needs visually, by surveying patterns of cracks and buckles, the best analysis is done by sending core samples to a lab.

  • Fortunately, trenching now underway for installation of the PI system is enabling a thorough inventory and analysis of existing conditions.

  • The Asphalt Zipper is a fascinating, recent invention which grinds, recycles and repaves asphalt all in one pass. Where applicable, this technology can reduce costs by sixty percent or more. It was invented right here in nearby Pleasant Grove, and American Fork has been making use of this technology.

The easiest conclusion to draw is that there are no easy conclusions. A good, solid, preventive pavement management program must be a top priority, or road maintenance will overwhelm the budget. And there is no single way to get there from here. Solutions will be found, but they will of necessity involve many different strategies -- and a goodly measure of patience.


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