One out of every four major roads in the city is in serious disrepair. One out of every 10 is in such bad shape that it'll have to be reconstructed, according to the city's transportation department. In all, 400 miles of major streets need fixing, at an estimated cost of about $578 million.
It’s not your imagination.
Seattle streets really are that bad. And, they’re not going to get better anytime soon.
How bad are they?
One out of every four major roads in the city is in serious disrepair. One out of every 10 is in such bad shape that it’ll have to be reconstructed, according to the city’s transportation department. In all, 400 miles of major streets need fixing, at an estimated cost of about $578 million.
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Residential streets that once received routine maintenance now get none, only pothole repairs or emergency fixes. The city hasn’t surveyed those streets but estimates it would cost $25 million annually to maintain them.
It’s clear the city isn’t spending enough to bring the average condition of major roadways up to even a satisfactory level. The question is whether it wants to.
The City Council will ask voters in November to add $60 to their vehicle-registration fees for 10 years. Twenty percent of the new fee — or about $12 — would go toward street paving, while almost half of the proposed fee is slated for transit improvements, including $18 million for planning and engineering a streetcar line that the city hopes to build if it can find the money.
City Council members have described the proposal as “responsible” and “balanced,” but none of them suggest it will put more than a dent in what’s needed to fix major roads and keep them from slipping into further decay.
Critics of the plan, including the Municipal League of King County, say it doesn’t do enough to fix the streets.
“We are troubled by the vague nature of the plan and the priorities reflected (particularly the significant support for high-capacity planning studies when there is a significant maintenance backlog),” the League, a nonpartisan civic group, wrote in opposition to Proposition 1.
Seattle now spends most of its $29 million annual paving budget on repairing or rebuilding roadways. If approved by voters, the new car-tab fee would increase that by $4 million a year. That would still leave the city with only half of what it says it needs just to keep the streets from deteriorating further.
The problem is common nationwide. King County’s paving budget has declined to the point where officials are considering letting some residential streets revert to gravel. Still, other cities have fared better than Seattle. Bellevue, for example, reports that it has no backlog of deferred maintenance.
Seattle’s focus on fixing the worst, most heavily traveled roadways while neglecting routine maintenance is a “recipe for disaster,” one widely published expert on road maintenance says.
“The worst-first approach to daily business is doomed for failure,” said Larry Galehouse, director of the National Center for Pavement Preservation at Michigan State University. “You cannot defer maintenance and expect to come out of a hole. You will never have enough money to rebuild your system before the rest of the system comes caving in on you.”
Councilman Tom Rasmussen, who heads the council’s transportation committee, said, “The city has been making choices over the years that caused a dearth in the funding of maintenance and operations of our roads.”
Public safety and social services have taken priority, Rasmussen said, and transportation funds over the past 10 years have increasingly been allocated for transit, bike and pedestrian safety.
But, as Rasmussen noted, even buses need roads.
Passing up chances
Aaron Daly of Tru-Line Frame and Wheel said Seattle has “horrible” roads. But Seattleites seem to have adapted by familiarizing themselves with trouble spots and driving around them, he said.
“It’s sort of a sad thing to have to know,” Daly said. “I think most people drive safely because they don’t want to have to open their wallets. Those can be expensive repairs.”
Daly said about 5 percent of the shop’s repairs are related to bad roads.
Complaints about the roads are legion, but no one seems in a rush to address the full scope of the problem. Seattle has a long history of turning down opportunities to fix its streets, a history that goes back decades.
In 1984, then-Mayor Charles Royer tried to push through a $97 million bond issue that included money for street repair. He accurately predicted the measure’s defeat, observing that the issue “may not be sexy enough. Capital needs throughout the city will be a hard sell to people.”
A year later, he presented a smaller proposal that the City Council slashed millions from before putting it on the ballot. It, too, was defeated.
The failure of the two measures may have emboldened the council to raid the street-maintenance budget in 1987 to replace $10 million in federal funds that had been cut from the police and fire departments.
The neglect continued until 1992, when the city, under Mayor Norm Rice, adopted a utility tax to fund about $250 million worth of roadwork. But the tax was ruled unconstitutional by the state Supreme Court, forcing the city to refund about $17 million to households and businesses.
In 1997, the city put a $90 million bond package for roads before voters. It, too, failed.
Nearly a decade later, then-Mayor Greg Nickels successfully pushed a nine-year, $365 million package called “Bridging the Gap,” to help the city catch up on its burgeoning maintenance backlog on streets, bridges and transit facilities. The measure, backed by property taxes, has provided most of the $23.7 million Seattle expects to spend on surface improvements to major streets this year, according to transportation-department records.
The tax will eventually pay for the resurfacing, repair or reconstruction of 200 lane miles of arterials, including the recently rebuilt Fauntleroy Avenue Southwest and Rainier Avenue South.
Still, the overall picture of major streets citywide hasn’t improved: The percentage needing repair remains basically the same since Bridging the Gap was passed, according to a recent city survey of 1,540 lane miles.
City transportation officials say they’d like to do more, but that construction costs — particularly for materials such as asphalt — have climbed dramatically since 2003.
But one concrete-company executive said competition has become so heated that bids for road projects are routinely coming in more than 10 percent below project estimates, indicating that if Seattle were to make a push to catch up, now would be a good time to do it.
City records show all eight Bridging the Gap road projects are expected to come in millions of dollars below city estimates in 2010, even on projects that became larger once they got under way.
“This is as ruthless a market as I’ve been in,” said Stoneway Concrete sales manager Mike Weeks, who has more than 14 years of experience in construction.
“They’re getting more miles per dollar — more product per dollar — than they have for years and years and years.”
Smooth roads elsewhere
Seattle often blames its lousy streets on the weather and its punishing effects on asphalt.
But Galehouse, the national paving expert, says routine street maintenance helps prevent streets from deteriorating, even in places with weather far more extreme than Seattle’s.
Evidence of success: Shoreline, where a sustained investment in maintenance is one of the key reasons the city doesn’t have a pothole problem. Likewise, Bellevue, where 80 percent of major streets and 97 percent of residential streets were in satisfactory condition, according to the most recent street survey, done in 2009.
Bellevue’s transportation-department spokeswoman, Teresa Becker, said the city does not have a maintenance backlog.
Galehouse said any street-maintenance program should involve a survey of all streets — not just the main arterials — and include regularly scheduled maintenance to extend the life of the roadways. Seattle does neither.
The city surveys conditions only on its major roads. Residential streets are managed with a combination of pothole repairs and other emergency fixes, even though the city seems well aware of the value of preventive maintenance.
The city’s transportation-department website, for instance, refers to the importance of maintaining road with “chip-seal,” a regularly scheduled maintenance program in which gravel and a thin layer of liquid asphalt are applied to road surfaces. In 2008, the department said it would spend $1 million to chip-seal 39 lane-miles of residential streets. Doing so would add 10 years of useful life to the streets. Neglecting it would eventually cost the city $7 million if the roads deteriorated to the point where they needed to be repaved, according to the department.
The city apparently is willing to take its chances: Last year, the chip-sealing budget for the entire city was $68,267. But even that money was siphoned off to pay for pothole repairs instead.
This year, there is no budget for chip-sealing. And the program has been eliminated in the preliminary 2012 budget.
Galehouse said fixing a mile of roadway while neglecting others ultimately results in the rapid decline of roads that might otherwise have lasted decades longer if properly maintained.
Douglas MacDonald, a former Washington state transportation director who first reported on the city’s street survey in a recent article for the news site Crosscut, agrees.
“When deterioration goes more than surface deep, the future costs to put things right go through the roof,” he wrote. “Streets really are falling apart and there are a lot more potholes ahead — tens or even hundreds of thousands at the rate we are going.”
And Seattle won’t be able to avoid the problems by increasing transit ridership: MacDonald’s article noted that a bus puts more than 7,700 times the stress on pavement as an SUV.
“Not pretty” for county
The picture is grim in King County, too. There, transportation planners are overhauling their maintenance practices to focus on the most heavily used streets. It’s conceivable that some nonessential roads with little traffic could revert to gravel, said transportation director Harold Taniguchi.
“It’s not pretty, to be honest with you,” he said. “We know we are unable to do the same level of maintenance on our roads as we have in the past.”
Cities and counties across the country are making similar choices. Portland is $1 billion short of what it needs.
Gov. Chris Gregoire appointed a task force to identify new sources of road funding to present to the Legislature. The group includes Councilmember Rasmussen and Taniguchi.
The city can spend money on buses and bike improvements, Rasmussen said, but ultimately, “they have to have decent roads to run on.”
“We should focus on primary routes, and improve those and keep them in good repair, and do as much as we can.”
Seattle Times news researcher Gene Balk contributed to this report.
Susan Kelleher: 206-464-2508 or firstname.lastname@example.org