First of three parts
Sheila Russell has lived on the tiny, obscure Riverside Court in North Toledo for nearly two decades.
During that time, she said, two mayors have visited with promises to fix her street — a surface barely resembling pavement after years of deteriorated patchwork, sinkholes, potholes, and cracking.
“It wasn’t too bad when I moved in, but now it is terrible,” Ms. Russell said.
It is so terrible that a University of Toledo assessment ranked it among the worst streets — if not the worst — in the city.
Set back from busy Summit Street, Riverside Court resembles an alley and is easy to forget. Residents there say that’s exactly what has happened: They’ve been forgotten.
“It would be nice if they repaved it, but I doubt it,” said Rob Warnke, another Riverside resident. “They say they’re broke. The city is always broke.”
Sheila Russell of Riverside Court in North Toledo says city promises over 20 years to repair her pockmarked street have failed to produce repairs. The surface of Riverside Court barely resembles pavement after years of neglect.
While not technically “broke,” Toledo — like many municipalities — has nowhere near enough money to keep up with street repairs and maintaining other infrastructure that includes sidewalks, bridges, and a sprawling underground system of water and sewer lines.
The city would need an astronomical $1.3 billion to fix all of its streets at once, according to Doug Stephens, Toledo’s commissioner of engineering services.
In a typical year, Toledo spends less than $20 million to maintain its streets, with about two-fifths of that coming from state or federal money. But to repave and, if needed, rebuild its streets on a regular, 20-year basis, the budget would need to be increased to about $64 million annually, Mr. Stephens said.
“That’s the size of the problem,” he said.
Mr. Stephens acknowledged that selecting which streets to fix is more like triage than administering a program to keep all streets in good condition. The net result of years of fiscal austerity, the engineering commissioner said, is a backlog of street repaving and reconstruction.
“Right now, we’re currently on an every-50-year replacement cycle,” he said. “And as you continue to lag behind, all of your pavement-condition numbers will continue to fall faster, and you have to do more expensive fixes.”
The numbers Mr. Stephens cited are assessment scores Toledo gets for its 1,224 miles of streets.
The Ohio Department of Transportation evaluates the 292 miles that are busy enough to qualify as “federal-aid roads,” eligible for state and federal grant funding. The remaining 932 miles are assessed by University of Toledo graduate engineering students under a city contract with the university since 1998.
Using a 100-point scale, evaluators grade the streets based on their appearance: the type of distress, its extent, and its severity, Mr. Stephens said.
Shinell Chenault says that drivers must dodge holes on Warren Street, below, in District 4. According to UT data, the district has 949 sections of streets with less than an 80 rating, which means it needs resurfacing or reconstruction.
Based on the assessment, more than 311 miles of Toledo streets need either resurfacing or complete reconstruction. That breaks down to nearly 66 miles in City Council District 1; 67.8 miles in District 2; 51.4 miles in District 3; nearly 46.7 miles in District 4; 35.5 miles in District 5, and 43.8 miles in District 6.
Riverside Court’s score was rated 30 after a July, 2013, assessment — the lowest The Blade could find in the thousands of lines of rankings. It inexplicably was increased to 44 after a November, 2013, assessment, which tied it as the worst Toledo street with a stretch of Cecelia Avenue running under I-75, a section now permanently closed because the I-75 bridge over Cecelia is being eliminated.
The inspections are inherently subjective, the engineering commissioner said, but they still give city officials “a general idea as to where all our roads stand” and where repair is needed, and over time the scores also will show the durability of various repair and reconstruction efforts.“
“It’s a big-picture tool, a tracking tool,” Mr. Stephens said. “A true pavement-management system predicts how a road deteriorates.”
Councilman Matt Cherry — the District 2 representative in which UT said are more streets needing repaving or replacement than any other district, said he was not surprised with those findings.
“We have gotten our fair share of repaving money in the past, but I was not happy this year about what we got,” Mr. Cherry said. “There are a lot of streets that are concrete in District 2, and they get overlooked because they cost so much more. ... We have to look at other sources of money for streets because we just don’t have enough.”
Waiting for action
Shinell Chenault, who moved earlier this year to central Toledo’s Warren Street between Machen and Winthrop streets in District 4, said her street needs to be repaved.
“There are a lot of vacant houses, and that would be my biggest complaint, but you also find yourself driving down the road weaving, trying to avoid the holes,” Ms. Chenault said. “On a scale of 1 to 10, I would give our street a 6, but if you go [south] a little further, I would give it a 3.”
The UT assessors didn’t agree. They ranked that block an 86 and recommended crack-sealing. One block north on Warren was slapped with rating in the 70s and was labeled as needing resurfacing.
West Toledo’s Middlesex Drive, between Bancroft Street and Brantford Road in the Old Orchard neighborhood, was ranked on the UT list as one of the worst in the city with an abysmal 33.3 rating, but a drive on the street shows a smooth surface.
Jim Blaine, who has lived on Middlesex near UT since 1985, said Brantford is in bad shape but Middlesex was resurfaced a few years ago and assumes the city hasn’t updated its data. In fact, Middlesex has been repaved twice since 1985, Mr. Blaine said.
Back on Riverside, Ms. Russell questioned why the homeowners on streets such as Middlesex — clearly more affluent neighborhoods than her area — would get two street repavings while she and her neighbors are waiting for one. City officials said roads are selected for repaving based factors like condition, amount of traffic, proximity to other street projects and to schools, and whether it is a residential or commercial street.
Councilman Yvonne Harper, the District 4 representative, said city officials need to re-evaluate how streets are selected for repaving and reconstructing.
Some say the city’s use of the UT data seems haphazard. The city’s engineering services division did not have the latest street assessments and instead had to request that data from the university when The Blade asked for it. Multiple forms for each district were sent to the newspaper that in some cases contradicted each other, showed different ratings for the same streets, or had different numbers of street segments.
Anything rated less than a 79 was recommended by the UT assessment to be repaved by either a complete reconstruction, which is the more expensive option, or the cheaper choice of resurfacing. A street with an 80 to 89 rating was recommended for sealing of cracks or joints, while those that rated 90 or above were good enough to be left alone.
Citywide, 333 portions of streets were ranked 90 or better.
The data identified as the most recent ratings showed council District 1, which includes most of central Toledo, has 786 sections of streets with less than a 80 rating. The sections are designated as a street between two cross streets.
District 2, which is chiefly South Toledo, has 728 sections of streets with less than an 80 rating.
District 3, with East Toledo and the old south end, has 778 sections of streets with less than an 80 rating.
District 4, with central Toledo, downtown, the Old West End, and North Toledo, has 949 sections of streets with less than an 80 rating.
District 5, with West Toledo, has 338 sections of streets with less than an 80 rating.
District 6, with North Toledo and Point Place, has 425 sections of streets with less than an 80 rating.
A matter of money
To restore city streets to “Cadillac condition” within 20 years, Mr. Stephens said, the major “federal-aid” arteries need about $608 million in repairs, or about $31 million per year, not adjusted for inflation.
The rest of Toledo’s streets need an estimated $675 million in upkeep during that time to get caught up, the engineering commissioner said.
While residential streets can be expected to outlast the typical 20-year design life for asphalt pavement because they don’t get much truck traffic, he said, their lives are not indefinite because of both materials’ degradation over time and cuts and patches required for utility repairs.
“Underground utilities are probably as much the death of a road as anything,” Mr. Stephens said.
Unlike the “federal-aid” streets, for which Toledo typically gets at least 50 percent grant funding — and often more — the residential streets rely entirely on local funding plus the city’s share of fuel-tax revenue.
Repair or reconstruction of arterial streets is often scheduled based on when Toledo can obtain grant money.
Toledo’s primary grant sources are federal funds distributed by the Toledo Metropolitan Area Council of Governments; federal safety-program money; Ohio Department of Transportation Urban Paving funds, and grants from the Ohio Public Works Commission.
“We’ll put in 20 applications. We might get six of them,” Mr. Stephens said.
Urban-paving money can only be used for the driving surface of streets with state-route designations, while safety grants can only be used for projects with a demonstrable safety benefit, Mr. Stephens said.
He cited as an example of the latter the city’s reconstruction last year of Dorr Street on the southern edge of the University of Toledo campus, which had one of Ohio’s highest rates of vehicular and pedestrian accidents. The project included adding median islands that make it easier for pedestrians to cross the street.
State safety money also is in place for an Anthony Wayne Trail reconstruction project near South and Western avenues that is scheduled to start this summer. City funds are to cover $3 million of the $7.6 million estimated cost, with ODOT covering any overruns.
City officials try to prioritize resurfacing of streets that are on the verge of degrading to the point of needing reconstruction if nothing is done, Mr. Stephens said.
“The resurfacing is very important to keep the roads from deteriorating and becoming more expensive to fix,” rather than rebuilding, he said.
For a typical two-lane street, resurfacing costs about $500,000 per mile while reconstruction costs triple that, Mr. Stephens said. For wider streets, the costs go up: When the city rebuilt a mile of Secor Road between Central Avenue and Monroe Street two years ago, the bill was about $5 million.
Work on residential streets, meanwhile, is largely complaint-driven, with pavement-management data also a factor and street projects clustered where possible, Mr. Stephens said.
With street conditions sometimes varying from one block to the next, simply picking the street segments with the lowest ratings and repaving — or rebuilding — those first wouldn’t work because of set-up costs for construction, he said.
“We start with complaint segments and stuff we know is blowing apart that we have to fix for safety,” the engineering commissioner said.
From there, Mr. Stephens said, officials review other nearby streets’ conditions with an eye toward upgrading “neighborhood clusters” that allow contractors to do more work for the same amount of mobilization.
“When they can be more productive as a contractor, we get better pricing,” he said.
The city also prioritizes, where possible, the “minor-collector” streets that serve as neighborhood thoroughfares because “I can get a lot more cars out of a bad situation” by repairing those, he said.
The UT students’ assessments is a bit subjective, to the point that sometimes a following year’s report will give a street a better score even though no repairs were done.
While there may be some slight variation in how a street is scored from one survey to the next, “you’re going to be in the same ballpark,” the engineering commissioner said.
The entire effort’s goal, he said, is to repair the neediest streets while getting the best value for taxpayers’ dollars.
“We do have a system. There’s a rationale behind it, there’s science behind it,” Mr. Stephens said. “But it’s triage.”
District councilmen have in recent years squabbled over the shrinking pot of money used for street repair. The city has for years transferred money from the city’s capital improvements budget to the general fund to pay for things such as police and fire salaries.
Last year, $14.1 million was transferred. This year, Mayor D. Michael Collins, who died in February, budgeted a $11 million transfer, which Mayor Paula Hicks-Hudson maintained after she took over.
Councilman Mike Craig has for years said the city spends too little on street repaving and his district has been regularly shortchanged.
“My analysis has shown that I have been shorted an average of 12 to 13 percent per year, adjusted for lane miles, since the inception of districts in the city,” Mr. Craig said. “I would have to get all the paving money for more than two years to make me even.”
Mr. Craig, who represents East Toledo and the old south end, said street repair should be funded through property tax assessments.
“What we want to do with that money is just the repair,” he said. “You can [then] take the $12 million a year from gasoline-tax money and do repaving.”
Mayor Hicks-Hudson said residential streets are clearly in worse shape that the city’s main arteries.
“I am looking into how we address this in a manner we can make a dent in getting streets the proper attention they need,” the mayor said. “I am looking at what other cities are doing in Ohio because most of us are facing the same reduction in the local government fund, and we have had to use CIP dollars to balance expenses.” The CIP is the city’s Capital Improvement Program.
Contact David Patch at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6094.
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