Paving, street maintenance audit hits (mostly) familiar notes

Cover of paving audit.
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Portland has a major backlog of street paving and maintenance. That’s the main finding of a new report by the City Auditor that came out yesterday (PDF). If that doesn’t sound like huge news; that’s because it isn’t. The maintenance backlog has been a major issue for many years. What’s different this time is that City Auditor LaVonne Griffin-Valade pins the blame for the problem on poor “stewardship” of the system by Bureau of Transportation staff and City Council.

The audit is just the latest red flag raised by the Auditor’s office on this issue. Since May of 2006, they’ve released seven audits relating to street paving and maintenance. In the audit released this week, Griffin-Valade accuses the City of, “not adequately protecting the condition of street pavement.” Despite data showing the maintenance backlog only getting worse, Griffin-Valade said City Council “chose to invest in competing transportation priorities without an overall strategy.”

The audit named those competing priorities specifically as funding for the Portland-Milwaukie light rail line, streetcar operations, and new sidewalks. All three of those refer to significant funding commitments made by former Mayor Sam Adams. Much to its credit, the audit never mentioned spending on “bike lanes” or “bike projects” as an example of a “competing priority.”

To get back in front of the backlog, the audit says it would take an additional $75 million per year for 10 years. That amount of money will not exist until the City puts forward a new revenue idea (such as a street maintenance fee or a bond measure). PBOT has responded to these paving audits for years with the same message: We need more money! But so far, City Council has been unable to deliver. Until a major new revenue stream comes along, the Auditor will likely keep publishing similar reports.

Throughout the audit, its author seem to want to pin much of the maintenance backlog problem on a few choices made by former Mayor Sam Adams and his PBOT Director Tom Miller (who resigned a few weeks ago). Here’s an excerpt from p. 16:

“The present poor condition of many streets and the high future cost to improve them, is a direct consequence of deferring maintenance in favor of other spending choices. Although PBOT management says it has an asset management perspective, its lack of planning for long term cost effectiveness contradicts that claim.”

That sounds like an awfully simplistic analysis. First, PBOT did not make those spending choices, City Council did. And even if Council did not tell PBOT to invest in the Sellwood Bridge, Milwaukie light rail, or new sidewalks, that money would only be a drop in the bucket when compared to the massive maintenance needs we face.

SE Foster Road-8

The response to the audit so far has been predictable.

Mayor Charlie Hales, who has made more street maintenance a rallying cry ever since his election campaign, is using the audit to push his narrative forward. In a letter responding to the report, he said, “We will immediately refocus the bureau to begin to address this vital need and start down the long road towards restoration.” He also just posted a statement on his website calling the audit “incendiary” and “a wake up call.”

The biggest lever Hales has to pull on this issue is his power over the PBOT budget. He hasn’t made any major proposals public yet, but sources say we can expect him to make some moves during the current budget process to make good on his campaign promises around paving and maintenance. Back in January, during an interview with KGW-TV, Hales said he plans to pave and reseal about 100 miles a year (he also said PBOT does only about 20 miles a year now – which is not true). “We’ve got a lot of reallocating to do in that budget,” Hales said.

PBOT has been making painful cuts to their budget for many years now, so exactly what funds Hales will rellocate and put into paving/maintenance remain to be seen. Whatever they are, they will hurt (politically, and in the ability for PBOT to perform its mission).

The Oregonian has used the audit as opportunity to further their misleading narrative around paving. An editorial published today once again incorrectly blamed “bike lanes” as one of the reasons for the maintenance backlog (note that the audit said nothing about bike lanes whatsoever). The Oregonian Editorial Board once again showed their true colors by framing the issue as a fight between “bike lanes” and “car drivers.”

Riffing off a quote from Auditor Griffin-Valade about the perils of going after “shiny objects” instead of unsexy maintenance projects, The Oregonian displayed hypocrisy by wondering out loud, “Is government really about shiny objects?” This from a newspaper that has written 38 editorials cheerleading the Columbia River Crossing project which, at an estimated $3.6 billion, would be the shiniest object in Oregon’s history.

In The Oregonian’s world, when streets fall apart it can only be an affront to “car drivers”. They write:

“And in a city of so many green and people-powered initiatives, Portland leaders must reckon with automobiles as an enduring preference of citizens.”

The preference of Portlanders is to have a transportation system that serves everyone and does it as safely and efficiently as possible. While this audit raises an important issue, it misses an opportunity to constructively move forward because it seems more driven by finding blame than actually solving the problem at hand.

Stay tuned for more coverage.

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Hart Noecker
9 years ago

No money for potholes? Let’s build a 12 lane mega-freeway instead!

9 years ago

To Charlie Hales, the Oregonian, I ask “Stupid, or Liar?” It has to be one or the other, either you are stupid and can’t look at the facts, or you are lying? I think it is the latter, but maybe it is just stupid…

9 years ago

Politically the first thing you do upon a changing of the guard is distance yourself from the old guard and carefully mouth all the buzzwords of the new guard. This is how you keep your job as City Auditor.

Jim Lee
Jim Lee
9 years ago

Portland’s City Auditor is an elected office.

Jeff Bernards
Jeff Bernards
9 years ago

Typical Oregonian reporting, studded tires have proven to cut road life in half, never a mention of that as a cause of our road problems.

Todd Boulanger
9 years ago

…and too bad not more of our secondary streets were constructed out of concrete in order to have a 50 to 100 year lifecycle vs. the 10 to 20 year asphalt resurfacing lifecycle.

When I worked in Honolulu, it was “common knowledge” in transportation circles that concrete roads were not as good as asphalt roads in drumming up on-going political donations due to the helpful annual contracts for resurfacing.