Portland's paving problem climbs to nearly $1.2 billion – OregonLive.com
Portland’s soaring street-maintenance backlog has officially surpassed the $1 billion mark, and the politician in charge of city transportation doesn’t have a solution.
The cost to repair deteriorating city streets to meet paving benchmarks would run an estimated $1.187 billion over 10 years, according to a new city report.
Portland’s paving problem remains front and center even as Mayor Charlie Hales and Commissioner Steve Novick offer no new plan. They abandoned a controversial tax-or-fee proposal in January after months of changing proposals. Both are up for re-election in 2016, and it appears unlikely either will push a plan before then.
Novick, responsible for the Bureau of Transportation since 2013, said in an interview Friday that “time is wasting.”
“But, still, that doesn’t change the fact that in order to get anything done, you need a credible coalition behind a proposal,” Novick said.
Novick said he has spoken with key figures from last year’s debate about possible next steps. He declined to say what he’s been told and said he doesn’t know how long conversations will last.
Novick said he has no timeframe for proposing a new funding plan and doesn’t know whether one will materialize before next year’s election.
Novick said he learned from last year’s fight, after he and Hales proposed a plan in May 2014 without public feedback and pushed the City Council to approve it two weeks later.
Now, Novick said, it would be foolish to propose anything that doesn’t have significant support outside City Hall.
“I can’t do anything by myself,” he said. “Unless there’s other people arguing for a solution, it doesn’t matter what I do.”
Robert McCullough, a respected energy consultant and street-fee critic, said he’s seen a noticeable shift. Novick approached McCullough, a gas-tax proponent, at a meeting about a month ago to ask for unscientific survey data about Portlanders’ preferences.
“I took it as a good sign,” McCullough said, “that Steve Novick had learned a little bit from the fiasco last year, and was trying a more open process.”
The latest increase to Portland’s paving backlog – $271 million in just one year – isn’t due exclusively to pavement deterioration, transportation spokesman Dylan Rivera said.
Rivera cited three factors: worse road conditions; inflation-related costs to make improvements over 10 years; and a new calculation to add curb ramps with repaving projects, to comply with federal Americans with Disabilities Act standards.
The city’s report, 18 months in the making and released this week, does not mention ramp costs.
Rivera said the Transportation Bureau could not immediately calculate how much of the $271 million increase is tied to ramps, although he speculated the requirements could increase project costs by 10 percent.
Portland has 4,834 lane-miles of paved roads. Lane-miles are the street length multiplied by the number of lanes. Residential roads make up more than 60 percent of the total, busy thoroughfares about 40 percent.
City officials score the roads on a scale of 0 to 100, with roads in poor condition rating 64 or less, roads in very poor condition 39 or below. The goal: 80 percent of busy roads and 70 percent of residential roads should score at least 65, or fair condition.
Portland’s roads have been deteriorating for years. The city auditor slammed the City Council in 2013 for poor stewardship and focusing on other projects.
Data since February 2013 offer a sobering look at how conditions keep spiraling.
In the 2013 report, 40 percent of Portland’s busiest roads were in poor or very poor condition. Today, it’s 49 percent. In 2013, 47 percent of residential roads were in poor or very poor condition. Today, it’s 56 percent.
When roads deteriorate into poor or very poor condition, they cost exponentially more to repair.
Despite the growing backlog, officials haven’t found a palatable solution.
Part of the reason is politics, as Commissioners Nick Fish and Dan Saltzman have called for a public vote and Amanda Fritz, the swing vote on the five-member City Council, has pushed to exempt thousands of Portlanders with low incomes.
The proposed street fee was unpopular, and now Hales may face a formidable 2016 challenge from state Treasurer Ted Wheeler. Hales’ spokesman has said the mayor wants the Legislature to provide more funding.
The backlog itself is another challenge. City officials say they’d need $118.7 million a year for a decade. Last year’s proposed street fee would have raised about $20 million a year for maintenance.
“The problem can seem so massive that people just give up,” Novick said. “But you have to start somewhere.”
— Brad Schmidt