Better Roads Staff
(when they’re not very good)
How some city road managers cope with diminishing budgets
By Kirk Landers
With Stimulus money slowing to a trickle and local tax revenues still sagging, Better Roads interviewed a cross-section of city road managers to find out what they are doing with the funds they have available.
With the federal transportation program foundering, and state and local tax revenues locked in the throes of the Great Recession, road managers all over the country are struggling to maintain the integrity of pavements and bridges. While major interstates and high-volume freeways get funding priority in times like these, thousands of lane-miles of surface streets in metropolitan areas carry high volumes of traffic and are an essential part of area commerce and lifestyle. And beyond those high-volume roads are residential streets that, though low on the triage scale, have safety, environmental and political implications.
Given the sobering reality in rural communities where some paved roads are being returned to gravel due to inadequate funds (See “Weighing the Options,” Better Roads, April 2011), we wondered how their counterparts in urban/suburban America were being managed. To gather some idea of today’s urban road realities, we engaged a random assortment of city road managers in a series of informal conversations.
Our informal, unscientific conversational poll turned up both good news and bad news.
The bad news is what we expected: funds for roads are becoming desperately inadequate in many places, and there is an air of uncertainty almost everywhere due to the absence of a long-term federal program and chronic weakness in tax revenues at all levels of government.
The good news is that it’s not all bad news. Some city governments are finding reason — and resources — to pursue aggressive road programs. And even in cities where road funds have atrophied badly, road managers are employing new strategies and tactics to protect the public’s investment in road infrastructure until the Great Recession gives way to the Great Recovery.
Bridge repair and replacement can overwhelm any municipal road budget, even in the best of times, and in times like these, managers are scrambling to prevent the need for expensive interventions.
Liong So, a senior project manager in the City of Dallas (Texas) Public Works Department, says her agency keeps the city’s bridges in good condition by responding quickly to repair and maintenance needs. “One area we especially monitor is scouring on bridge columns,” she says. The agency’s strategy for bridge deck repairs now emphasizes longer-lasting interventions, she adds. “We still want to intervene quickly, but now, instead of a quick fix, we’ll do a full-depth repair, if the conditions warrant it.”
Rock Miller, a principal of Stantec, one of North America’s major highway and bridge consulting engineering firms, notes that bridge replacement has become an especially dicey proposition. “We are in an era of dwindling resources,” he observes. “We have to do more with less, but in many areas, the available funds aren’t even enough to cover maintenance expenses because funding has declined and maintenance costs have gone up.
“There have been a lot of innovations in pavement and bridge technology, but we don’t have the ability to fund them,” he notes.
Of course, when bridges become dangerously near the end of their service lives, communities often have to do something. That something, says Miller, may be tolling. He cites as an example a floating bridge in Seattle, which will sink in a few years. “The price tag for replacing that bridge is the entire budget capability of the region,” says Miller. “The best option they have is to rebuild it as a toll bridge, and we may see a lot of that sort of thing as time goes on.”
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