The Road Maintenance Dilemma of Our Cities

Road maintenance is a major line item that frustrates city budgets across the United States. It is also an item that is extremely noticeable to the general public and visitors of a city. As an example, it was stated in the 2011 Quality of Life Indicators report for Colorado Springs that 77% of the roads in the Pikes Peak Region are classified as “fair or poor condition.”

Budget concerns like this one are very difficult, if not impossible to creatively address. To date, Colorado Springs has nearly $1 Billion of infrastructure maintenance this year alone that will not be funded and therefore will not be maintained.

Although, the majority of a City’s infrastructure is originally paid for and constructed by land developers, it is the city’s responsibility to maintain the infrastructure after it is in place. The exception to the rule is in the case of private streets, which can and often do get transferred to the city after the private entity (often HOA’s and Metropolitan Districts) deem that they cannot afford to maintain the infrastructure.

Certainly the issues with the roads, bridges, etc. are directly related to the density and the general dependence on the automobile. In a perfect world, the dependence on the automobile will be decreased through infill and mass transit (discussed in the blog post, The Importance of Density: Colorado Springs Quality of Life Indicators). Unfortunately, infill and mass transit are a long-term solution that cannot occur overnight.

What can our cities do today to address the issues at hand? I believe that for starters, careful consideration must be given in the approval of new roads and additional lanes. Government leaders must carefully analyze the level of service that is really needed for a new street rather than requesting free flow traffic at all times. In my mind, this is the equivalent of a spoiled child making ridiculous demands of their parents.

Our cities must also consider the width of the street that is required to be initially constructed by the developers. There are far too many local streets that are designed for capacities unreasonable for the actual use of the adjacent land. Think of a conventional suburban residential subdivision where 40-ft of pavement is provided for one lane of traffic in each direction. The logic of the street width is that vehicles will actually park on the street, however in most conditions, adequate driveway space is provided for a minimum of two vehicles plus garage parking. This is more than adequate in most instances.

We must also think about our current abundance of 4-lane, 6-lane and even 8-lane roads in our cities. If the number of lanes can be decreased on the roads, we should consider only repaving the areas that are truly needed for vehicular flow and allow for the additional width to be used for on-street parking and/or bicycle lanes. This may mean in some cases that the level of service, or lack of congestion, will be decreased to reduce the maintenance needs, but it is something that cities should consider. Should the standard level of service (graded in a school format of A to F) be decreased to a lower level? Is this an alternative for a city to responsibly sustain its ability to exist?

In Colorado Springs, I recently conducted an analysis of a few major east/west streets in Southeast Colorado Springs. From my measurements, I found a constant street width of 67-ft on Airport Road and Pikes Peak Avenue between Academy Boulevard and Union Boulevard. Aside from one stretch between Printers Parkway and Union Boulevard, the streets had two lanes of traffic in each direction and a center turn lane. Most of the street segments included on-street parking on at least one side of the street, however it was rare to see an actual vehicle parked. Without providing any sort of calculation or traffic counts, I estimated that Airport Road and Pikes Peak Avenue each had a level of service of A, potentially B in a couple of instances. There was certainly not a congestion problem present.

For each of these roads, it seemed to me that the responsible solution would be to resurface only the portions of the roads where traffic regularly occurs. On-street parking does not necessarily need to be resurfaced too often, in fact it could even function as a gravel area to park if need be. Out of the 67-ft of paved area, conservatively 55-ft would need resurfaced. For deeper savings, it would seem to me that only 32-ft (two 11-ft travel lanes and one 10-ft center turn lane) are really needed to be resurfaced. If only half of the resurfacing is needed throughout the City, a budget savings of 50% of maintenance costs can be realized.

Adequate space for on-street parking and a bicycle lane is available by only repaving one lane of traffic in each direction and the center turn lane on this Colorado Springs Street.

In conclusion, there are innovative opportunities for our governments to maintain our municipal infrastructure, but there needs to be a paradigm shift in how we provide maintenance. We need critical thinking and to challenge conventional knowledge about our cities. To quote Baseball Hall of Famer, Yogi Berra, “What gets us into trouble isn’t what we don’t know; it’s what we know for sure that just ain’t so.

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