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Citys paving efforts fail to make grade

Audits: Repair backlog keeps growing; spendy, substandard fixes cited

A series of audits conducted this year on the city's street paving program has found numerous, serious problems with its administration - resulting in unnecessarily expensive projects and increasing Portland's backlog of streets needing repairs.

The audits, conducted by the Audit Services Division of the city auditor's office, recommend sweeping changes in the way the program prioritizes and oversees maintenance and repair projects

City Commissioner Sam Adams, who is in charge of the Portland Office of Transportation, said he will appoint a task force to study enacting them.

'We need to be getting the absolute most out of our street repair dollars,' said Adams, who was assigned the transportation bureau by Mayor Tom Potter in July 2005.

The city has more than 3,900 lane miles of improved streets valued at $3.6 billion. Repairs are done by the Bureau of Maintenance of the Office of Transportation. Street preservation is the largest of nine programs within the bureaus, with a budget of $15.2 million in the current fiscal year.

The audits come as the city is facing an ever-growing backlog of streets needing repairs.

According to the auditor's office, the backlog has grown from 439 miles in 1991 to 597 miles in 2005, a 36 percent increase in 14 years.

The estimated cost to repair the backlog has more than doubled since 1994, growing from $44.8 million to $92.9 million, the office said.

The auditor's office has released three audits on the street paving program since May. A fourth audit is due out in the next week or so.

All of them fault how the program is being administered - all charging that the program is not spending its street paving money efficiently. Together the four audits claim the program is spending more money than necessary to preserve fewer miles of city streets than possible.

The May audit found that the program was not fully complying with state laws designed to ensure that projects were done for the lowest possible cost.

Twenty-two percent of the in-house paving projects in 2005 were so large the state Bureau of Labor and Industries should have reviewed them to make sure that private companies could not do them cheaper. Instead, program administrators did not notify the state of the projects, which cost $3.6 million.

The audit did not analyze the projects to determine which, if any, could have been done for less by private contractors. That analysis would have been performed by the state, if the law had been followed.

The July 2006 audit found that, contrary to the program's stated goals, it was not engaged in preventive maintenance. Instead of preventing streets from deteriorating to the point where they need major repairs, the program was concentrating on repairing streets in poor condition, including short-term fixes on badly deteriorated streets.

For example, according to the audit, the bureau allowed Southeast Division Street and North Lombard Street to deteriorate to the point where major repairs were required, but then used only short-term fixes that will need to be completely redone within just a few years.

According to the audit, 'this reactive approach has resulted in PDOT spending more money to maintain fewer streets, and limits its ability to reduce the repair backlog and improve the overall condition of streets.'

The September audit faulted the program for negotiating poor asphalt supply contracts. According to the audit, the contracts failed to ensure an adequate supply of asphalt for repair projects and program officials failed to take advantage of volume discounts that could have saved the city $100,000.

According to Drummond Kahn, director of the Audit Services Division, the fourth audit will claim program officials have not adequately monitored all paving projects, allowing some substandard repairs to be done. The substandard repairs, Kahn said, will not last as long as they should, meaning the repaired roads will deteriorate early and cost even more money to fix again.

Kahn declined to blame anyone associated with the program for the problems, saying they may in fact be typical of paving programs in other cities, too.

In letters of response to the audits, transportation office Director Sue Keil accepted the findings and promised that steps would be taken to correct the problems.

Adams said the City Council may need to change the organization of the transportation office during the next budget cycle to increase the director's management of the paving program.

Adams said that even if all the recommendations in the audits are enacted, it will be hard to significantly reduce the backlog of streets needing repairs without additional funding. The paving program is largely dependent on revenue generated by the state gas tax, which has not been increased since 1993.

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