Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Pothole Problems Remind us the Gas Tax is Running on Empty

There's a preview of the City budget in the paper today and it mentions Public Works and the Department of Pothole Repair.

Not much highlighted, since it's a piece on the whole budget, is the fact that the gas tax is falling further and further behind on our basic needs for potholes. But not mentioned at all is the way our committment to building new roads and new road capacity exacerbates the whole mess - why are we building new stuff if we already can't maintain the old stuff?

Preview of next year's budget: Fewer resources for potholes
From the piece:
City government still is shrinking. City staff would be reduced by a little more than 6.5 full-time equivalent positions in the draft budget. The reductions primarily are from positions already trimmed, mid-year, and positions left vacant.

Deeper budget cuts — perhaps as much as $6 million over five years — may be needed in future budget cycles if city revenues continue to lag behind costs, Norris said...

Salem Public Works Director Peter Fernandez, who also will give a presentation to the budget committee, said roads that are in bad shape will continue to be in bad shape. Projects to maintain roads, such as applying asphalt overlays, probably won’t get done, he said.

As Fernandez explained, the city will continue to fill potholes. Unfortunately, there may be more potholes to fill with fewer resources. Funds to pay for street maintenance are being squeezed for a couple of reasons:

The draft budget cuts general fund support for the transportation fund, which pays for street maintenance, to zero, he said. As late as fiscal 2010-11, the transportation fund was getting about $1.2 million from the general fund.

Revenue from gasoline taxes steadily has dropped because people are driving less and using more fuel efficient vehicles.

No layoffs are expected in public works, but the department will not fill four vacant positions in street operations and maintenance, Fernandez said.

Budget cuts might revive discussions about a streetlight fee. [italics added]
The gas tax and other car user fees don't come anywhere close to full funding for roads. The general fund supports maintenance and a property tax bond is doing all the road bond construction - $100 million worth! - since 2008. This is the trade-off:  If folks want to pay less at the pump, then they end up paying more on their house. (So, equally, if folks want to pay less at the pump, they may pay for streetlights instead.)

An economist would observe that sends messed up pricing signals to the market: The costs of using the roads are shifted to your house! Shouldn't the cost and pricing signalling of using the roads be more squarely linked to cars and car use? We haven't adjusted the gas tax in 20 years, and inflation alone has hollowed it out - that is, our pricing hasn't even kept pace with inflation.

(And then there's that pesky fact that urban renewal funds have propped up the downtown parking district. There's a huge, systemic, and essentially unacknowledged, subsidy for car users.)

ODOT's Funding Crunch
There's not some City conspiracy here, there's not meaningful amounts of fat to cut out of "lavish" City budgets.  The fact of the matter is our funding system is structurally insufficient at this moment:  It's broken and it's going broke.

Federal Highway Trust going Broke in August!
Fees and taxes are unpopular at the moment, to say the least, but if we want to be able to maintain our existing road system, we should just raise the gas tax! And then we can talk about a mileage tax, a carbon tax, and all the other elements of a larger and systemic reform to our approach to transportation infrastructure funding.

And not at all addressed in the piece is the fact that the road bond construction has a bunch of capacity increases. Most of the projects in "congestion relief" and a lot of them under "safety improvement" are simply widening projects.  That's like half of the bond - that's adding $50 million worth of new construction to the list that we already can't afford to maintain!

Why are we adding anything to the list of things we can't afford to maintain? That's messed up, too.

The City Budget Committee meets tonight, April 9th, at 6pm at City Hall in Council Chambers.

Also - Cherriots

Cherriots Route Coverage in West Salem
(Also, remember the Cherriots meeting about improving service in West Salem. That meeting is also at Roth’s West at 1130 Wallace Rd NW tonight, April 9th, from 5-7 p.m.)

Footnote on T-Bone Crashes, April 19th

I would draw a very different conclusion:  20 is plenty
In the comments there was talk about the fact that the realignment at Market and Swegle took out two t-intersections. This week a tragic t-bone trash proved fatal in Independence. The proverbial "speed was not a factor" is in play, but I read it very differently: 35 or 40mph is plenty fast to kill. The fact that a posted limit of 35mph is considered low-speed inside city limits with adjacent housing is a sign of how screwed up is the way we approach safety.


Laurie Dougherty said...

Just came across this today:

Sen. Patty Murray of Washington warned that the federal Highway Trust Fund faces bankruptcy later this year. The federal gas tax (18.4 cents) has been the same since 1993.

The story is here (I don't know how to make the clickable):

Anonymous said...

And in the Oregonian, "7 reasons why Oregon transportation funding could fall by $500 million by 2020" -

Anonymous said...

From the post...

"But not mentioned at all is the way our commitment to building new roads and new road capacity exacerbates the whole mess - why are we building new stuff if we already can't maintain the old stuff?"
"...and a property tax bond is doing all the road bond construction - $100 million worth! - since 2008."

Let check the facts: The 2008 bond divided the $99.8 million into 3 buckets:

$31 million for congestion relief (widening Kuebler Blvd., and widening the Market/Lancaster and Wallace/Glen Creek intersection); upgrades to signals and the traffic control center; and $3.6 million for right-of-way for Marine Drive and/or bridge in west Salem.

$28 million for repaving streets and replacing 2 bridges (the big one being the $12 million for Commercial St. bridge over Pringle Creek)

$38 million for safety improvements and non-motorized modes: sidewalks, bike lanes along with repaving as part of those projects; downtown curb extensions; pedestrian crossings, the railroad crossing safety improvements.

[for the purpose of brevity, I'm not counting the bond issuance cost. Also, in 2011 and 2013, about $15 million in savings were allocated: some to capacity projects (primarily Kuebler Blvd), some to pavement restoration, some to streets that didn't have sidewalks. See the 12/9/13 city council agenda packet)

So in reality, the bond didn't build any NEW roads (it added a few lanes to existing roads and widened 2 intersections for a total of $25 million).......The majority of funds (2/3rds) went to road maintenance, safety, bike and pedestrians projects.

If this post was graded (like is done in PolitiFact), I think it would get a "Mostly False" grade.

Salem Breakfast on Bikes said...

Well, here are the projects in the original bond I counted as straight-forward road widening capacity increases:

Keubler $2,831,000
Keubler $6,000,000
Market Lancaster $8,567,000
Glen Creek and Wallace $8,458,000
Hawthorne Hyacinth $12,957,000
Market Swegle $10,841,000
Eola Drive $6,409,000
Skyline Road $4,708,000
Total $60,771,000

It would be interesting to see each project re-estimated as "mill and repave" only or for ones like the Eola project as sidewalks/curbs/gutters/bikelanes in a two-lane rather than three-lane cross section.

I am skeptical that additional capacity would come in at or below your $25 million figure. I still believe the bond has a lot of capacity increases in it - much of it "hidden" in the "safety improvement" bucket.

In any event, I would welcome a more precise accounting of the bond components.

The $50 million is a swag, and maybe it is on the high side. It would be great to be more accurate. But I don't think it is wildly misleading.

Philosophically here - and plainly you do not agree - we should observe Policy J.12 in our Comprehensive Plan:

"The implementation of transportation system and demand management measures, enhanced transit service, and provision for bicycle and pedestrian facilities shall be pursued as a first choice for accommodating travel demand and relieving congestion in a travel corridor, before widening projects are constructed."

The City did not try very hard to fulfill this before making the bond project list.

(As for the bond savings, you can see several discussions here.)

Thanks for stopping by!

Susann Kaltwasser said...

I suspect that the last two street bonds were fashioned more around what would the public support rather than what was actually more cost effective.

Two of the biggest projects were in the neighborhood (East Lancaster - ELNA) for which I am the chairperson.

The Market/Lancaster intersection was the second most deadly intersection in Salem. 25th and Mission being the first. Center and Lancaster being the third.

The changes to the lanes did add capacity, but the primary concern was to increase traffic separation, to close driveways and control turning to increase safety.

The Market/Swegle realignment included extensive work to the drainage system, sidewalks and replacement of culverts over the headwaters of Claggett Creek that starts in that part of town.

The safety issue around Swegle Elementary School was also a major concern. I am not sure it increased capacity at all. Even though we got a center turn lane, there is still only one travel lane in each direction. There were existing bike lanes that were also used for pedestrians where there were no sidewalks.

This project in some ways was long overdue for putting in safety features and sidewalks near an elementary school and the Swegle Boys and Girls Club.

That said, it is still to be determined whether the safety was enhanced or problems just exchanged for new one. Let's hope that it does cut down on accidents in both areas.

I also happen to live in West Salem off of Glen Creek Road. I travel the intersection of Wallace Road and Glen Creek frequently. Frankly, I cannot understand that project at all. Congestion is not that bad really. Yes, the light was a bit long, but I am not sure the new configuration is going to take any less time.

The island that is being created seems like an accident waiting to happen, and as you pointed out in this blog before it is going to make it harder for pedestrian and bike riders to navigate the area. This one, I could have done without. To me it is a waste of $10million that could have been spent better on working on smoothing the issues of access to the bridge that causes the real problems in the commute from West to East.

To bad that at the time of the vote there is very little information, i.e. no detail drawings for citizens to really see what they are getting for their tax dollars. If we could have a breakdown on what it costs to do certain things to our streets maybe we would change our minds about what is a priority and what is not so important.

Salem Breakfast on Bikes said...

As a couple of footnotes...

Market and Swegle as has been discussed (here and here). As a road straightening project that permits higher speeds, it counts as a capacity increase. By eliminating pesky 90-degree turns and stop signs, the smoother curves allow for greater through-put. So maybe the count of lanes stays the same, but without the "kinks" in the line, more can be pushed through. The design is more "forgiving" so it looks like it is "safer" - but to drivers only! Smoothing out the curves helps with speeding drivers who no longer have to make the 90-degree turns. It's far from clear how this design helps kids. It moves the street a little away from the school, but at the cost of higher speeds.

(Center turn lanes mean cars aren't stopped behind a person turning, so these add capacity to the adjacent through-lanes. That's why I count going from a two-lane to a three-lane cross section with turn pocket as a capacity increase.)

On Market and Lancaster, see here. The dual turn lanes and longer crosswalk distances definitely make it less safe for people on foot and on bike! If closing driveways and adding separation was the priority, why the added lanes? Lancaster is an epic charlie foxtrot for people on foot and on bike, and the way to make it safer is probably to figure out how to make it easy for people not to drive there - fewer cars, more walk/bike/bus - rather than to make it safer to drive there. The whole multiway boulevard design really ought to be given some serious thought. The Market and Lancaster project is all about safety and convenience for people in cars, not about people who walk, bike, or bus. And since it adds road area, it adds to our future unfunded maintenance liabilities.

So from the standpoint here, neither of these count as good or neutral projects. They're in the bad side. Totally agree that political expedience was an important ingredient in the bond brew!

(Back to Anon, there's no beef here with the "mill and repave" cluster of projects, or with the bridge replacements. Though we might wish for some tweaks in design, in general they are exactly the kind of "preserve and maintain" projects we should be doing.)

Curt said...

Susan points out that the intersection at 25th and Mission is one of the most dangerous in Salem. This intersection is fully built out and represents a final product of these "safety improvements". Its also where SCV has advocated putting the new police station. At SCAN Gene Pfieffer advocated for moving the municipal court there as well. Since low income citizens are typically the one who need to use the justice system most, its those that rely on walking, biking and transit as their primary transportation that would need to bear the consequences of such a policy decision. Like Connor Jordan did when he was killed while legally attempting to cross Mission St. a couple years ago. That is why I call the outcome of the policies that SCV advocates for "transportation apartheid". SCV has not documented any direct savings from these policies and we can't even begin a discussion about the indirect costs that everyone bears for this culture of depression, obesity and car crashes in Salem.

Salemites obviously want unobstructed, free flowing traffic and tons of available free parking when they arrive at their destination. Safety is just one more talking point into the mix because makes a stronger argument for that outcome.

Richard Jackson of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has pointed to a substantial body of evidence that the opposite is the case. The crash rate in NYC is around 4 per 100k in population. In Portland its around 7 per 100k. In Salem its 13 per 100k. A recent safety study from Portland Metro found that the most crash prone streets were the ones with the most capacity and the least congestion.

Anonymous said...

If you look at old aerials of swegle and 45th and market and 45th, you'll see two closely space t-intersections. this creates multiple conflicts between turning vehicles (and pedestrians too) which was the primary reason for the reconfiguration. If you ask your city staff, they will confirm this. Now, it also reduces vehicle delay, but that is not the major reason for the project. Of course, I doubt SBOB will believe this, so I mention it for the other readers.

Salem Breakfast on Bikes said...

Sorry I wasn't clear! "pesky 90-degree turns" and "kinks in the line" = "two closely space t-intersections".

What you see as "conflicts" is also "traffic calming." If through-put wasn't the priority, the "conflicts" wouldn't be so problematic, and there are different intersection treatments that don't require a new roadway with smoothed out curves, that could be installed if safety for kids were the number one priority.

Again, for more in Market and Swegle, including map clips that show the t-intersections, see here and here.

Laurie Dougherty said...

Before I retired and moved to Salem, I worked for the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy in Cambridge, MA. Lincoln funds research, conferences, workshops and publications on land policy with a small staff and a pretty much global network of academics, planners and policy makers. Lincoln has worked with people in Oregon studying the urban growth boundary and made a documentary film Portland: The Search for the Livable City. Russ Beaton told me he spoke at a couple of Lincoln conferences (before I worked there). My job was administrative, but I learned some things through osmosis.

One of the groups Lincoln often partners with is the Regional Plan Association in the New York City region. I don't remember how RPA and Lincoln got involved with a project in Florida, but they did an analysis of Florida State Road 7/US 441 which sounds very much like Lancaster Road or South Commercial (or US Rt. 1 in Norwood or Saugus, MA for that matter).

RPA & Lincoln developed a plan - The Florida State Road 7/US 441 Sustainable Corridor Study - held workshops on it in Florida, and took the plan on the road as part of a series of workshops called Redesigning the Edgeless City. I don't remember if any of the plan was ever implemented, but it might have some interesting ideas applicable to rethinking and redesigning Lancaster Road.

From RPA: "The Florida State Road 7/ US 441 Sustainable Corridor Workshop in Hollywood, Florida.... looked at redevelopment options for Florida State Road 7/US 441, a highway arterial that supports a high level of business and traffic but is outdated and auto-oriented in design. The workshop aimed to redesign this strip as a local shopping street with pedestrian-friendly design and traffic calming techniques."

Anonymous said...

SBOB - Back to your list on your April 10 post.

Three projects you listed (Hawthorne-$13m, Eola $6.4m, Skyline- $4.7 m) are projects for streets that either had inadequate sidewalks and bike lanes or none at all and adds them, without adding any additional capacity lanes. In other words, they all have one lane in each direction and after adding the sidewalks and bikelanes will still have one-lane in each direction. I thought you supported added sidewalks and bikelanes, so what is your complaint? In the case of Eola and Hawthorne, it completely rebuilt the street as each was in need of more than a repaving (since the Skyline project hasn't started, I don't know if it is a rebuild). I drove on Skyline on Friday morning, and observed kids walking to school on the dirt and grass where new sidewalks will be built.

(Your comment about re-estimating them as "mill and repave" - I assume that the city determined for each project a repave wouldn't have been a smart use of the funds, if the street had deteriorated past a certain point and required it be re-built from the base up.)

Now, we can quibble about whether these 3 rebuilds add a small amount of capacity or not, since in select locations maybe a left turn bay was added: a turn bay helps with safety by reducing the probability of rear-end collisions, but adds a bit of capacity by removing a vehicle out of the thru lane. I'll concede it adds a tiny bit of capacity. But the major reason for these projects are maintenance and bicyclists and pedestrians.

Salem Breakfast on Bikes said...

Here's one of the new sections of Hawthorne right by Northgate Park.Though you may disagree, I think this is stronger than a quibble and I would point to this as an example of the way a three-lane cross-section is an overbuilt road. There is little development and few intersecting streets, and so it is hard to say that there are a lot of turning movements that really need the shelter of a turn pocket. Moreover, this is not a case of "in select locations maybe a left turn bay was added"; on the contrary, this is one long strip of center turn pocket. This standard is common on our new projects.That's why I think it is more accurate to call this a three-lane cross section, and why it is definitely an instance of "widening."

The way this road is overbuilt suggests it is more about widening and capacity than about traffic calming and safety for people on foot and on bike. I think it is ironic that as it was widened to a three-lane cross section, it seemed necessary to put in a pedestrian median at the crosswalk! Maybe if the street was built for slower speeds and kept the two-lane section, it wouldn't be necessary to back-fill with the median. (Slower speeds, after all, would be another way to reduce rear-end collisions, but the wider avenue in fact encourages higher speeds now.)

There are some additional pictures in this post relevant to our debate.

This is an abiding interest here, and there will be many opportunities to revisit the topic in the future. You may not be persuaded now, but there will be new occasions for persuasion and more debate! Thanks for reading!

Anonymous said...

SBOB - to your last post...

For the section you point to, there's a center turn lane because there are many driveways along that section, on both sides of the street! You'll also see apartments, apartment complexes, etc. And north of the section you point to, there are less driveways and streets and, wait a minute.... and two lane section. Is there some correspondence between access locations and left turns bays. Wait, I think there is!!

Now, put yourself in the shoes of the Public Works department. Do they want to spend money on constructing and later maintaining a 3 lane sections if they thought a 2 lane section would suffice, or do they understand that pulling cars out of the travel lane is worth safety benefits of reducing rear-end collisions.

And for some reason, you continue to discount that these 3 projects (and many others in the bond) added sidewalks and bikelanes. News: Keizer is adding bikelanes and sidewalks on Chemawa Road, so you should start on post on that wrong-headed project.

There are studies of the safety of center turn lanes, such as this

which show in general that they reduce crash rates, although more for rural areas than urban areas (likely due to higher speeds in rural areas).

Salem Breakfast on Bikes said...

LOL, now I think you may just be trolling! This is a bike blog: We do not "continue to discount that these 3 projects (and many others in the bond) added sidewalks and bikelanes." On the contrary, we value them greatly!

But I do not dwell on them because I believe they should constitute a baseline expectation, an assumption - and in fact Oregon's bike bill makes them required when you jump up a level from the "mill and repave" to "rebuild." They are not a "gift"; they are an expectation and obligation, part of a complete street. Perhaps I misunderstand, but you seem to want non-auto users to be exceedingly grateful for a sort of noblesse oblige on the part of car-centric public works departments when roads get sidewalks and bike lanes.

The point here is that many roads can get sidewalks and bike lanes and traffic calming without superfluous capacity increases - like the northern section of Hawthorne you point out - but the current system too often structures basic remediation for sidewalks and bike lanes around car capacity increases.

As for rear-end collisions, they are caused by speeding and driver-inattention. Turn pockets accommodate speeding and driver-inattention - they engineer "forgiveness" into the roadway, "forgiveness" chiefly for other drivers. A different way of solving the problem might be to reduce speeds and increase driver attention. It is telling that turn pockets work better in rural settings where speeds are higher.
Since you do not seem to be a regular reader (and may not even live here), here's a note about a section of Chemawa. In it, in fact, I make a related point: The speed limit is too high. There also through-put on a dead-end road (!!!) is privileged at the expense of calm conditions and comfort for other road users.

(On thrift, well, despite our conversation here in the comments, the larger point of course was not about Hawthorne in particular but was about the gas tax. You ask rhetorically, "Do they want to spend money on constructing and later maintaining a 3 lane sections if they thought a 2 lane section would suffice?" And the answer here is: Public works here (and everywhere) is in fact giving little serious thought to future maintenance obligations. We already have a huge backlog of deferred maintenance needs and the gas tax and other existing funding mechanisms is inadequate for taking care of these. So it is misleading to use that rhetorical question - since virtually every road authority in the country is unable to maintain all of their existing road capacity. Even when people admit there's a road funding problem - and the City of Salem as well as ODOT, have written reports about the problem, of course - most crucially as expressed in actions and new construction, in deeds rather than in words, there is a wild, irrational exuberance about funding and our future prospects to maintain roads and bridges. There is a great dearth of critical, realistic thought given to likely future transportation maintenance needs. So your appeal to the "wisdom" of public works planning doesn't hold. As Susan suggested in a previous comment, many of the project selections in the bond were motivated more politically than prudently.)

Salem Breakfast on Bikes said...

updated with clip on t-bone crash in Independence