Street conditions good, likely to deteriorate

Apr. 27, 2014 @ 04:50 PM

Paving-wise, Durham’s streets are in the best shape they’ve been in a long time, but the city and its taxpayers probably can’t afford to keep them that way, Public Works Department officials say.
Bond issues passed in 2005, 2007 and 2010 pumped $39.7 million into repaving work.
That spending left the city with “a good street network overall,” going by the results of a new pavement-condition survey that looked at all 702 miles of city-maintained roads, Public Works Director Marvin Williams said.
But to keep them as smooth as they area now, at their current, post-bond peak, the city would have to spend “$10 million to $12 million annually” in cash on routine paving and maintenance, Williams said.
The City Council in fiscal 2013-14 allotted $750,000 for that work.
Even if officials pushes the annual cash budget for roadwork to $5 million or $6 million, some deterioration is inevitable, Williams told the City Council.
The $5 million mark corresponds with the target former Public Works Director Katie Kalb always suggested when council members asked her what it would take to repave city streets on a 20-year maintenance cycle.
And at least one council member was ready to say there’s little chance she and her colleagues will spend even that much.
“My guess is we’re not going to approach the $5 million adequate-funding [level] per year for now,” Councilwoman Diane Catotti said. “I would think we have to prioritize.”
She and other council members noted that the paradox of the bond program is that its best returns show up on neighborhood- and subdivision-level streets that bear the lightest traffic loads.
Arterials – think thoroughfares like the Martin Luther King Jr. Parkway or Club Boulevard – are worse off but still in relatively good shape, according to the pavement survey.
Going forward, “clearly we’d want our principal roads at the highest quality because they carry the highest number of cars,” Catotti said. “And the local roads don’t.”
She added that the council likely also has to make some choices about the effort to convert Durham’s remaining gravel streets to paved roads.
The city now has on the books nine “petition” projects, requested by neighborhoods, to pave 1.5 miles of gravel roads, at a cost of $2.6 million.
Another 18.6 miles of gravel also awaits attention, and would cost about $37 million in present-day dollars to convert.
The gravel-to-pavement program is popular with political groups like the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People, as its targets include neighborhoods city leaders deliberately neglected during the segregation era.
But the city’s added gravel roads in the decades since desegregation, sometimes when developers for whatever reason failed to put in links between new subdivisions.
Catotti said it’s likely time for officials to reconsider or revamp the gravel-to-pavement program, perhaps by asking neighborhoods that request conversions to pay more for them.
Given that “$2.6 million is more than we’re going to come up [for routine paving] over the next two or three years, if we’re not using it on our arterials and collectors, perhaps that’s not a wise choice,” she said.
Williams said the situation is much the same when it comes to sidewalks.
Public Works staffers know of about $11.5 million in current repairs needs, affecting 160 of the city’s 462 miles of sidewalks. Its cash budget for sidewalk work, not counting allocations for building new sidewalks, is $375,000.
Building just the top 24 projects in the city’s long-term sidewalk plan would cost about $13.7 million, Williams said.
Again, Catotti couldn’t see where the money would come from. “We’re never going to get there and it’s really discouraging,” she said.
Thursday’s council meeting highlighted an ongoing dilemma for the council, however.
Members spent well over an hour reviewing the city’s subsidized housing program, which includes projects like the ongoing Rolling Hills redevelopment and is funded in part by an annual “penny for housing” property tax earmark worth $2.4 million a year.
Council members launched the effort partly in answer to pressure from big-three political groups like the People’s Alliance. They also were stung by criticism in successive elections from opponents who, despite faring badly at the polls, scored debating points in arguing the city had neglected neighborhood revitalization.
The paving program, by contrast, responded to actual polling that indicated that residents felt Durham’s streets were in poor shape.
The city’s pollster, Chris Tatham, made a point this winter of telling council members surveys can help them distinguish the general public’s wishes from those of pressure groups.
“If you’re only listening to the public process, you might not hear from your average customer,” he said in February. “People who like their services typically don’t show up [for meetings] and tell you how good they are.”