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City hopes latest survey will show progress on roads

But rough estimates hint that Lake Oswego streets may have degraded faster than maintenance crews could keep up

REVIEW PHOTO: VERN UYETAKE - Lake Oswego has put extra emphasis on funding for roads in recent years, including major projects like the complete redesign of Kerr Parkway.For both the Lake Oswego City Council and Citizens Budget Committee, road maintenance has been a major priority in recent years — and until last month, the increased funding appeared to have made a dent.

According to the City’s annual Capital Improvement Plan (CIP), the backlog of unfunded road maintenance fell from $14.6 million in 2013 to $5.8 million last year, and it seemed to be on the way to meeting a longstanding if unofficial goal of reducing that total to zero.

REVIEW PHOTO: VERN UYETAKE - City Engineer Erica Rooney says the City has to prioritize projects when choosing which road to maintain. Blue Heron Road is in bad shape, she says, but it doesn't carry a lot of traffic. 'You don't just go in and pick the worst first,' she says.But when City Councilor Jeff Gudman asked staff at a budget committee meeting last month to provide a current estimate for the backlog, the answer that came back was unexpected, to say the least: $22.7 million, or roughly 50 percent larger than the estimate from three years ago.

The new figure is only an estimate. It’s based on the results of a citywide road assessment called the Pavement Condition Index (PCI), and Lake Oswego’s last PCI survey was conducted in 2013. The next PCI survey is scheduled for later this year, and it will provide a more accurate total.

Still, City Engineer Erica Rooney says the new survey will likely confirm that the backlog has either remained the same or grown substantially since 2013. And the latest draft of the 2016 Capital Improvement Plan now includes the same $22.7 million total.

Needless to say, that came as a surprise to Gudman and other councilors. After all, the council has poured record levels of funding into roads, and the City has tackled several huge road improvement and repaving projects. So shouldn’t the backlog have dropped?

“I was surprised,” Gudman told The Review. “And then my second question was, ‘What happened?”

Rooney says the discrepancy likely began in 2013, when the backlog estimate was added to the CIP. That estimate used the latest Pavement Condition Index to calculate how much additional funding would be needed to improve the city’s roads.

The PCI rates the condition of each road on a scale of 1-100; Lake Oswego’s citywide average score in 2013 was 64, which is considered “fair.” The 2014 and 2015 City Council goals both include a target of raising that average to 70 — the minimum score to be rated in “good” condition — in five years. The CIP uses that target to calculate the extra funding needed to meet the council’s goal.

In the 2013 CIP, that extra funding was listed as $14.6 million over five years.

“We have been adopting the budget and the CIP every year, which had that target of getting the PCI to the goal of 70 by a certain time period,” says Gudman. “That was all voted in and accepted. So implicit in all that was that we were going to drive (the backlog) down to zero at a pavement condition index of 70.”

ROONEYBut Rooney says the CIP omitted an important detail: The $14.6 million couldn’t be spread out evenly over the five years. To reach the target score of 70, she says, a big chunk of that funding needed to be provided in the first year for an “initial blitz” of road maintenance work.

“If you want to have a goal of 70 PCI, then you have to spend X amount upfront,” says Rooney. “This got lost somewhere in the conversation.”

The latest draft of the 2016 CIP specifies that $9.8 million of the required $22.7 million would have to be provided in the first year in order to meet the five-year target. But the 2013 CIP didn’t mention any need for a larger upfront amount, and without that surge, the city’s roads degraded faster than maintenance crews could keep up.

“We thought that the amount of money we were throwing at it would raise the PCI,” says Mayor Kent Studebaker. “But while it might keep it from falling, it apparently won’t raise it.”

All roads are constantly worn down as cars drive over them every day, and the more a road’s condition declines, the more money it takes to fix it, according to Rooney. This means that a lower PCI level is more expensive to maintain — and even more costly to improve.

The 2013 PCI report, for example, estimates the cost to maintain the PCI of 64 at an extra $4 million annually for five years. For comparison, the City’s 2016-17 budget allocates an extra $3.1 million, which is more than in any recent year.

REVIEW PHOTO: VERN UYETAKE - Crews repaved 16 lane-miles of roadway over the past two years, including A Avenue, as a part of an effort to catch up on the city's road maintenance backlog.Lake Oswego’s system rating was 76 in 2002, but a decade of insufficient street funding caused that number to fall to 64 by 2013.

“It had kind of fallen off the chart,” says Rooney. “It drops off much faster if you don’t catch it before it falls.”

Once the PCI falls too low, the “initial blitz” of funding becomes necessary in order to raise the entire system rating in one shot. If that’s not done at the start, then the majority of roads will deteriorate even as a handful are fixed using the available funding, and the system-wide average PCI will continue to decline each year.

In other words, the City’s road maintenance backlog is like a credit card with a balance so high that the monthly payments can’t keep up with the rate at which the interest is adding to the total. That’s why the 2016 PCI report will likely show that the City’s score has remained around 64 — or declined further.

“I don’t see how it could’ve gone up,” Rooney says, “without that initial blitz.”

The problem is that the level of funding needed for an “initial blitz” just isn’t available in the City’s annual budget. Rooney says it would require some sort of additional revenue source such as a bond measure, but that’s a tough sell because the council has already been putting more annual funding into roads since 2013.

GUDMAN“The pavement condition is going to be in as good a place as it possibly could be,” says City Councilor Joe Buck. “We’ve literally been dedicating every extra dollar to that purpose.”

The extra money has been helpful, Rooney says — just not enough to reverse the overall decline.

“I don’t want to say, ‘If you’re not going to give us $10 million next year, don’t bother,’” she says. But in the absence of a maintenance surge, what can Lake Oswego do?

Part of the answer, Rooney says, is to stop putting PCI numbers in the Capital Improvement Plan — and more broadly, to stop using the City’s average PCI score as a way to set council goals and measure progress on roads. The PCI is useful for prioritizing funding and projects within the engineering department, she says, but not for the overall City budget.

“The PCI is a tool for identifying where to start — it helps guide where we choose projects,” says Rooney. “It’s an inside tool.”

One of the reasons to avoid using the PCI for City budgets is that it can be misleading, says Rooney. For example, the PCI will be higher for cities that are still expanding, because brand new roads will raise the average. But Lake Oswego is built out — Rooney says the City has only put in one new road in the past seven years, so its scores tend to be lower. That’s one of the reasons why she says the PCI is not typically used to set funding goals.

“This is not a number you’re going to find any other city talking about,” she says. “I think this was developed as a way to say, ‘Let’s have a target.’”

Instead, she says the City ought to measure road progress by focusing on things that can be more definitively measured, such as repaving and big road projects. In short, the City should focus on the projects that are funded instead of the ones that are not.

“What’s important to the public is that they want more paving done. Surveys have shown that,” says Rooney. “Setting goals of how many miles you’re going to pave is more tangible than a PCI number. People can relate to that.”

By those measurements, Lake Oswego has been making progress. The City paved a total of 16 lane-miles in the past two years, as opposed to just three in 2012-2013. And there have also been multiple large-scale projects, such as the repaving of A Avenue and a complete redesign of Kerr Parkway. Upper Boones Ferry Road is next in line for a major repaving.

“If we’d had less money, we would’ve done less,” says Rooney. “We wouldn’t have been able to save up and do Kerr; we’d just be doing small local streets. Having more money allows us to look at doing both.”

Gudman says that even though the $22.7 million estimate was unexpected, the additional funding in recent years has still played a critical role in the City’s road maintenance.

“Think of how much worse we would have been if we hadn’t been doing what we have been doing,” he says. “We have a lot of work still to do with one of the most important physical aspects of the city.”

For the moment, the only thing to do is wait for the results off the 2016 PCI survey to provide a definitive number — and that’s what several councilors say they’re doing.

“I don’t know where we’re going to be on it,” says Councilor Jon Gustafson. “We’ve had this road maintenance as a top priority, and in my view, where we are in that backlog isn’t as relevant as the fact that we’re doing everything we can, and then some, to try to tackle it.”

For some, like City Councilor Jackie Manz, the 2016 survey will be a first opportunity to review up-to-date numbers. Manz, Buck and Councilor Charles Collins all took office after the street funding push began.

“I, too, was taken aback by the increase, but then I was not on the former council,” Manz says. “I personally am waiting for the (PCI), which will be done this summer. The strategy from there will certainly be to look at that number and see, based on the previous PCI, how far ahead we’ve moved, if at all — the problem being, of course, that roads are deteriorating as we’re speaking.”

Contact Anthony Macuk at 503-636-1281 ext. 108 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..