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Audit: City road paving maintenance hits potholes

by: TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO: JIM CLARK - A pothole on Northwest 15th Avenue is an example of what a new city audit says is the 'poor' condition of a large chunk of Portland's streets.Portland has failed to adequately maintain its city roads, and city commissioners have neglected to even get regular updates on the state of city roads, according to a report released Tuesday by City Auditor LaVonne Griffin-Valade.

Last year, the audit revealed, 44 percent of the city’s streets were rated in “poor” or “very poor” condition. By the time roads get to that level, they become more costly to upgrade than if the roads had been maintained on a regular schedule.

It’s the fourth critical audit of city transportation spending policies since 2006.

“As we explained in previous audit reports in 2006 and 2008, it costs far less to maintain streets in good condition, extending the useful life of the surface pavement, than it costs to restore neglected streets once they reach poor condition,” city auditors note. “In other words, fixing streets in poor condition costs much more than keeping streets in good condition.”

Auditors found the city has begun using industry-accepted tools for evaluating street conditions, based on past audit recommendations. However, the city has not devoted enough money to keep the streets in decent condition.

The Portland Bureau of Transportation estimates that only 60 percent of arterial and collector streets are in “fair” or better condition, and only 53 percent of local streets are at that level.

The city would need to spend an estimated $60 million this year — six times current road maintenance spending — just to keep roads from getting worse, auditors conclude. The bureau estimates it would cost $85 million a year for 10 years to get all the city’s roads up to proper levels — more than eight times current spending levels.

The city’s roads are worth an estimated $5 billion, the city’s largest asset by dollar value.

In addition to saving money in the long run, auditors note, proper road conditions would reduce carbon emissions, because better roads improve fuel economy. That means lower costs for motorists.

The city has long recognized it has not kept funding at the proper level for its road maintenance system. In January 2009, Portland City Council adopted a policy to reduce maintenance work on local streets, in order to prioritize improvements to roadways used by a larger share of the population.

Auditors also faulted city commissioners for taking their eyes off the issue, despite warnings that road maintenance was being neglected. The city transportation bureau didn’t even report the condition of city streets to the city council during budget deliberations from 2006-07 through 2008-09, auditors noted.

Portland Mayor Charlie Hales said he agreed with the audit findings and is taking steps to shift transportation spending priorities.