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Rough road ahead: Richmond’s pavement program to suffer budget cuts

on October 4, 2011

Sit for a minute and watch cars drive the stretch of road on Barrett Avenue from Harbor Way to Seventh Street, and you can see bad pavement in action. A red Range Rover trips over an uneven patch with a jolt. The Camry behind it slows down and creaks as tires meet pothole. A white Chevy tries to accelerate, but the cracks on the road resist.

According to a quality standard set by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, the pavement of Barrett Street at Seventh Street is so bad it counts as a “failed” road, scoring 24 out of 100 in the regional transit agency’s test.

Although city’s Pavement Management Program is still trying to get these “failed” roads fixed, now they are less likely to be paved in the near future, as the program’s funding plunges sharply from $6 million per year to $4-4.5 million.

“It is just not there,” Councilmember Tom Butt said at last Tuesday’s council meeting about the funding for the program. “It is hard to get money just to get our streets paved, and this is going to get worse.”

Richmond is responsible for approximately 750 lane-miles of pavement, roughly equal to a 12-foot wide road from Richmond to Vancouver. The system would cost about $450 million to replace entirely.

At least $6 million is needed annually to keep the city’s pavement condition at its current level, the city’s engineering service department said in a presentation to the council last week.

A little more than 2 percent of all street segments of Richmond are in a “failed” condition, defined by the MTC as “extremely rough and difficult to drive.”

The Pavement Condition Index is a score that rates segments of roadways on a scale from 0 to 100, ranging from a low of “failed” to a high of “excellent.” The brand new segment of Barrett Avenue in front of City Hall has a PCI of 100, and the complained-about segment of the same avenue crossing Seventh Street has a PCI of 24.

City Engineer Edric Kwan used the example of maintaining a house to illustrate the relationship of cost to pave a street and the street’s condition. Sealing cracks of a road in good or excellent condition takes $1 per square yard, he said, similar to painting a house. Overlaying a road with asphalt, similar to restoring the siding of a house, takes $25 to $42 per square yard. If the pavement condition is very poor, similar to a house in need of reframing, it takes $80 per square yard to reconstruct.

If the city spends its paving budget to fix only a handful of failed roadways, instead of maintaining a much larger percentage of the network that’s still in good condition, good roads would soon fall into disrepair and require more extensive treatments, according to a “Pothole Report” issued by the MTC in 2011.

“Pay now, or pay more later,” Kwan said, summarizing the pavement-management philosophy.

Maintaining a street is increasingly pricey as well. The cost of asphalt, a major material used to pave streets, increased nearly six-fold from 1999 to 2009.

Richmond, like other Bay Area cities, employs a program called MTC StreetSaver to prioritize pavement processing. The entire city pavement network is divided into more than 1,000 street segments. City engineers collect and input the condition of different segments and annual budget into the system, and through complicated calculation, the system produces a list of streets to pave.

The software leans towards cost-effective repairs, and most parts of the department’s work falls into the “overlay” category, costing $25 to $42 per square yard. Sticking to the program-generated list, according to a city council staff report, is useful in improving average condition most with limited resources.

“That tells you the best place to spend the money,” said Tawfic Halaby, an associate civil engineer and pavement coordinator with the city’s Engineering Services Department.

Richmond’s overall average PCI has jumped from 58 in 2009 to 68 in 2011. The city once had a street condition that was considered among the worst in Bay Area, but significant improvement started in 2006. Richmond has been spending close to $6 million per year in pavement management since then.

But it’s not nearly enough. If the city wants an excellent street condition, Kwan said, it would need to spend an average of $19 million per year until 2015 to increase the PCI to 84, a condition similar to Brentwood or El Cerrito.

The funding cut raises new challenges for the Engineering Services Department, and prioritization becomes an even more difficult issue. Although engineers use the StreetSaver software results as their principal guide, they also consider residents’ requests, coordination with other projects, special programs and safety in deciding where to pave. As a city with aging infrastructure, Richmond has poor-condition streets in nearly every neighborhood.

“I would love to pave them all, ” Kwan said, responding to a question from Councilmember Corky Booze during the council meeting. “But I cannot take money from one community to another.”

Halaby keeps track of complaints and requests from residents about the city’s pavement condition. He said he receives two or three calls or emails every week complaining about roads that are not paved.

“It is almost impossible for the city to respond all these complaints,” Halaby said. “Unfortunately we have streets in failed condition all over the city, every neighborhood … I cannot favor my neighborhood and ignore your neighborhood. I cannot do that. The software is fair.”

Still the engineers refer to the complaint list and compare it with the priority list produced by StreetSaver.

“Let’s say for example we have a list, we know we want to pave some streets the next few years, and if one of them is complained, we might do it sooner,” Halaby said.

A Marina Bay resident, Halaby said he drives or bikes on South 23rd Street –another heavily complained-about segment — every day to and from work, bumping in and out potholes. The busy street connects central Richmond to Highway 580.

Most complaints, Halaby said, are from these heavily used major streets, such as segments of Barrett, Cutting, Hilltop and South 23rd Street. “Those four we have targeted to do some work, but unfortunately we have delays,” Halaby said.

The Pavement Management Program has to coordinate with other city works such as sewer projects, external company projects and geographic grouping to reduce the paving cost. Waiting for a stormwater project delayed Barrett Street’s pavement, and the engineers have been waiting four years for the South 23rd Street due to a sewer program, Halaby said.

Safety is another issue the engineering service department has to take into consideration, and streets near schools are priorities. “We don’t want kids to fall when they cross the streets, when moms cross with a stroller,” Halaby said.

For a state that grew rapidly in the highway age, old infrastructure and lack of funding are a chronic and historic problem in California, made more urgent in years of down economy. The “Pothole Report” issued by the MTC defined Bay Area streets as “fair at best,” and the region’s average PCI was 66 out of 100. In an older city like Richmond, the addition over time of sewer, storm water, cable TV, and telephone infrastructure has always required digging up the entire street, which worsened the pavement condition.

Except for newly built cities such as Brentwood, which enjoys an average PCI of 86 and requires minimum funding to keep the condition, most cities in Bay Area have aging roads in need of restoration.

“Berkeley, Oakland, Richmond, many cities,” said Halaby, who before coming to Richmond worked for three years in pavement management in Oakland. “This is not something new. This is not something unique.”

In some cities, citywide taxes have become a choice to make up for the lack of revenue. El Cerrito implemented a half-cent sales tax in 2008 for a Street Improvement Program, boosting its average PCI from 48 in 2006 to 85 in 2010.

Still, it’s uncertain whether collecting additional tax is an option for Richmond. Councilmember Butt suggested polling residents to decide whether people would be willing to pay more for better streets. But Halaby said he doubted residents are able to pay extra considering the poverty and unemployment rate in Richmond.

The Engineering Services Department is also striving to get more funding from the MTC. One program to rehabilitate Carlson Boulevard between Tehama Avenue and the south city limit received $4 million, with the major funding from national and state funds administered by the MTC. But not all streets in Richmond are lucky enough to be eligible for national funding.

In the fiscal year 2009, Richmond’s Pavement Management Program funded more than 40 projects. That number dropped down to about 30 in 2010, and is likely to drop even lower with the new budget cut.

“We do fewer and fewer streets each year,” Halaby said, predicting that PCI will have a minor decrease in next five years. “Not that much in five years. But in 20 years, in 30 years, yes. You don’t see many changes in the short amount of time. You see the changes in a long period of time. ”

| 12 Worst Street Segments in Richmond


  1. Denzel Dowell on October 4, 2011 at 3:29 pm

    Richmond has a Pavement Management group? I always figured City Hall was encouraging us to buy 4×4 vehicles.

    • Bob Calo on October 4, 2011 at 4:07 pm

      Good one, Denzel!

  2. Jason Myers on October 5, 2011 at 1:22 pm

    Funny, how they were able to secure all of those funds to lower the grade of Carlson Blvd. by about three feet and fix the potholes there.

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