Smoothing the Way

Road repair is a rough and tough job that cities need to tackle.
February 1, 2008 AT 3:00 AM
Alex Marshall
By Alex Marshall  |  Columnist
An urban affairs and infrastructure columnist for Governing

Fixing potholes and lesser blemishes in city streets may be plebeian, but such repairs are a metaphor for a locality's ability to provide quality services. And yet, cities and counties in this country have some of the worst street surfaces in the developed world. Where most urban streets in Germany, Scandinavia and France are baby-bottom smooth, ours are typically a dangerous collection of holes, divots, creases and bumps.

A colleague from Germany, surveying the ragged and pit-marked streets that surround Harvard University in Cambridge, was astonished that the wealth and splendor of the university existed side by side with such apparently shoddy upkeep of city streets. "It reminds me of a Third Worldcountry," he said.

Why are streets here so pocked and pitted? There is, of course, a deep bias in our system against spending money on maintenance.

This has long fascinated me. It seems to be true not just in transportation but in virtually every sector of government, from parks to schools to sewer systems. It has to do, I think, with the separation of capital from operatingbudgets and the ability to use debt to fund capitalimprovements.

A station official on a light rail line in a major city once showed me overhead platform lights that were rusting out. They could have easily been maintained for a relatively low annual sum. But the transit department wasn't tapping its operating budget to do that. Instead, it was waiting for all the lights to deteriorate. Then it could use the capital budget to replace the entire lighting system -- even though it would do so at an exponentially higher cost.

There are other reasons for our poor maintenance record. In some ways, the potholes and scars on city streets mirror our fragmented and uncoordinated system of government and private enterprise. Most divots and bumps in city streets come from the need to repair or replace what is beneath them, which in most cities is a vast array of gas, electric, phone, television and other utility lines, mostly owned by private companies.

Not surprisingly, repairing the streets after a company has installed a cable TV, electric or phone line is often not the private company's highest priority. Typically the company subcontracts the work out to a contractor, which lengthens the chain of responsibility. And even if private utilities want to do a good job, they must coordinate with local road departments, which is a difficult task even if done with good intent. It all adds up to streets that are patched and repatched.

Then there's coordinating the different public agencies with responsibilities below ground. Transportation departments typically have primary responsibility for streets, but leaking lines from water and sewer departments, which are usually public agencies, often cause much of the damage to street surfaces. A city's public water department rarely makes top-quality road repairs a priority.

In Europe, the public sector typically has a much stronger hand and is organized more hierarchically. There are fewer private utilities, and those that do exist are managed more firmly by government. Government as a whole gets a lot more resources. It all adds up to smoother streets.

Is there anything we can do within our system? We could start with better public oversight. If public work is to be done by the private sector, then the money needs to be there to set standards and hire the staff to see that those standards are met. Construction standards could be higher. What I hear from colleagues in Western Europe is that streets are often built deeper and with better materials, and that translates into longer street life and fewer expected repairs.

There could be technological fixes as well. Streets could be designed similar to raised-floor systems in office buildings, where cables and conduits can be neatly accessed without tearing up the building. Actually, that was done a long time ago in one city. As I note in my book, "Beneath the Metropolis," the sewers of Paris, laid out in the 1850s, are big enough to walk through and house virtually all other city utilities, from water to fiber-optic lines. There is little need to tear up streets in Paris.

The wave of the future is urban and suburban streets that are more than just conduits for cars -- they'll be byways for bicycling and other non-motorized modes of travel and routes for new technology. To get there, we need city streets that not only go somewhere but are smooth.