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  • 27 Nov 2014

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Our Opinion: City's street maintenance plan has holes

A little more than three years ago, Tigard’s Coastal Pavement Services launched a service to fill potholes around the region — including in Portland — in exchange for donations to a handful of charities.

The idea worked, with the company has filling dozens of potholes and raising thousands of dollars through its Potholes for Poverty project.

Unfortunately, such charitable efforts cannot even begin to fill the gaping transportation hole that Portland now has dug for itself. Portland’s transportation budget, which will spend $8.1 million annually for several years to cover the city’s obligation for the Sellwood Bridge replacement project and the new Milwaukie light-rail line, has neglected to adequately maintain hundreds of miles of city streets. That’s what a new city transportation budget audit released Tuesday discovered when auditors looked at Portland’s street work.

According to auditors, Portland would need to spend $85 million a year for the next decade just to keep up with all the street maintenance and repair work. That’s about $75 million more a year than the city has been spending on street maintenance and repairs each year, and it shows. Auditors said the Portland Bureau of Transportation had overestimated how close it was coming to its targeted level of maintenance for arterial, collector streets and neighborhood streets. More than half the city’s streets were considered in less-than-adequate shape, according to the audit.

Auditors found that 56 percent of the city’s pavement is in fair or better condition. The remaining 44 percent of pavement was in poor or very poor condition.

That’s unacceptable.

New Mayor Charlie Hales recognized the poor investment Portland officials have made in city streets when he made management of Portland’s Bureau of Transportation a central issue in his campaign. After the audit was released, Hales called it “incendiary” and a “wake-up call.”

We agree with Hales. But the problem is two-fold. First, the Bureau of Transportation has seen its budget shrink as gasoline tax funds and other revenue sources have dried up in the past few years. The bureau employs about 700 people and is looking at serious cutbacks in staff and projects in a 2013-14 budget proposal.

Second, as the city audit pointed out, the Bureau of Transportation doesn’t seem to have a long-term plan or strategy to maintain or improve the city’s streets. Without goals for the bureau, according to the audit, it has “allowed spending choices to be disconnected from what PBOT priorities might be if long-term impacts of those choices were considered.”

In other words, the bureau is spending its money in ways that don’t necessarily make our roads and streets better.

An 18-member transportation budget advisory committee told the City Council in late January that the Bureau of Transportation needed to make difficult choices about its programs. The City Council also needed to review all bureau programs — including street lighting, leaf collection and the streetcar — to see if that’s where the city wanted to spend its money.

Some of the bureau’s spending decisions came about through city programs to boost bike lanes and transit, and implementation of the Portland Plan, all things we support. But at the same time, the bureau has neglected its core task: keeping the streets maintained so residents can move around safely and businesses can move goods and services.

We agree with the city auditor’s office recommendation that the Bureau of Transportation must develop a clear strategy that puts street maintenance front and center. Without a strategy in these difficult budget times, there will be far too many more potholes to fill.