Local

Just how bad are the streets in your town — and what will it take to fix them?

Bill Mavety stands in the middle of Amapoa Avenue, a road riddled with alligator cracks, potholes and bumps. The street is in Atascadero, but the city declined to include it in its sytem of maintained roads.
Bill Mavety stands in the middle of Amapoa Avenue, a road riddled with alligator cracks, potholes and bumps. The street is in Atascadero, but the city declined to include it in its sytem of maintained roads. dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

Editor’s note: This is one of three stories on the state of SLO County roads. Search our databases for your street here to see how it rates, and find out how a gas tax hike could help improve conditions.

Got potholes?

If so, you’re not alone; nearly every community in the county has cracked, patched and potholed roads in need of major rehab.

Just ask the people who regularly negotiate them:

There is an actual canyon in front of my house,” Antje Knott of 12th Street in Paso Robles said via Facebook. “I filled in part of it with rocks so I could park. The mail man can’t get to my mail box it’s so bad!” (Full disclosure: Knott has since moved.)

Michael Roberts of Grover Beach says all of Grover’s streets west of 16th need attention. “This is a serious matter. The streets are sickening,” he wrote.

Bill Mavety, whose two young children live with their mom on Amapoa Avenue in Atascadero, describes the family’s first time driving on the street as “quite harrowing.”

“The one nice thing about it — it keeps people from speeding,” he said, as he pointed out the cracks and humps and holes on the street.

Potholes aren’t just a nuisance.

They take a toll on vehicles; one study shows that Los Angeles drivers spend an average of $1,000 per year in repairs and wear-and-tear on vehicles due to potholed streets.

Even more concerning, potholes are dangerous — especially for motorcycle riders and cyclists. Serious injuries and even deaths have been reported in motorcycle and bicycle accidents involving potholes.

Local governments generally aren’t liable for damages or injuries caused by potholes or other problems, but that immunity may not apply if an agency is aware of a hazardous road condition and does nothing about it.

Ronald L. De Carli, executive director of San Luis Obispo Council of Governments, talks about how the government maintains and builds streets in San Luis Obispo County.

The city of Los Angeles, for example, agreed this month to pay a cyclist $7.5 million on account of injuries he sustained when his front tire hit a patch of pavement that had been uplifted by a tree root. The accident left the rider a quadriplegic. According to the Los Angeles Times, the city had received several complaints about the road, but never fixed it.

So, just how bad are our local streets?

We don’t have to rely on anecdotal reports; experts have an objective way to “grade” pavement. Each publicly maintained street and road throughout San Luis Obispo County has a Pavement Condition Index — or PCI — score based on visual inspections and, in some cases, a measurement of subsurface condition.

Some local streets are so riddled with ruts, patches and alligator cracks (so-called because they mimic the pattern of a an alligator’s skin) that they flunked the “test.” A handful of streets failed in spectacular style, scoring 0 (the worst) out of a possible 100 (the best).

ROAD PAVEMENT GRADES

Any street scoring under 20 is considered bad — and almost certainly in need of total reconstruction — while streets rated above 80 are excellent.

The scores aren’t just about bragging rights; PCIs are a diagnostic tool that helps public works departments decide how to best spend scarce road repair dollars.

They also provide citizens with a snapshot of how well their communities are keeping up with one of the most mundane — yet most critical — of all municipal services: Providing a safe route from here to there.

Plus, the condition of streets reflects a city’s financial health. The two cities in San Luis Obispo County with the highest average PCIs — Pismo Beach (73) and San Luis Obispo (71) — have consistently generated the highest sales and bed taxes revenues that can be plowed back into roads.

Both cities are aiming to improve their streets even more: Their goal is to raise their PCI average to 80, though San Luis Obispo is reassessing city services on account of the pension shortfall it’s facing.

Other cities aren’t quite so ambitious; they’re working toward 65 or 70.

The reason for lower expectations?

In a word, money. It would cost $43 million per year over the next decade or so to bring all local roads in the county to the level of “good” of better, according to the San Luis Obispo Council of Governments (SLOCOG). That could shrink to $33 million per year if the recent, statewide gas tax and vehicle license fee increases stand.

Road maintenance has been underfunded for so long — a problem many blame on the state — that virtually every city in the county has passed a half-cent sales tax measure to help fund road repair, among other goals.

Still, it’s a struggle to keep up — sort of like whack-a-mole. Take care of one pothole, and another appears, especially during the rainy season.

Streets62889
Johnson Avenue at Orcutt Road in San Luis Obispo has a Pavement Condition Index of 100 — the highest possible rating. David Middlecamp dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

Paso, Atascadero face biggest funding shortfalls

Grover Beach (42) and Atascadero (47) have the lowest Pavement Condition Index in the county.

Grover’s roads were in such bad condition that 68 percent of voters approved a $48 million bond measure in 2014, on top of the sales tax increase that was already in effect. That’s left its road repair budget in decent shape, comparatively speaking.

Atascadero, on the other hand, faces a huge challenge. The city needs almost $5 million per year just to maintain streets at their current level, according to SLOCOG. To raise the condition of streets to the city’s target goal of 65 on the PCI scale — almost 20 points higher than where they’re at today — it needs $11 million more each year.

In Atascadero, the problem isn’t just lack of money; it’s the magnitude of the problem. Atascadero has 139 miles of road to maintain — compared to, say, Pismo Beach with just 37 miles. Also, when the city incorporated in 1979, the roads it inherited from the county already were in poor shape, according to Atascadero Public Works Director Nick DeBar.

“They weren’t designed appropriately and they weren’t well maintained,” he said. “Thirty miles were never accepted (into the system of city-maintained roads) because they were so terrible.”

Streets62873
Morro Street between Palm and Monterey streets in San Luis Obispo has a Pavement Condition Index of 16 out of 100 — a rating of bad. Anything under 20 is considered bad. David Middlecamp dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

In fact, Amapoa Avenue is not a city-maintained road, DeBar said. Nor is it county maintained; it most likely is among the roads that property owners are responsible for, according to Dave Flynn, deputy director of county Public Works.

Paso Robles also is struggling financially. Its current overall PCI is 54. To raise it to 80 — which is a stretch for any city — it would need to spend another $19 millon per year, over and above the $5 millon it’s been spending.

“That’s a lot. We don’t have that kind of money, and that would be a lot of construction,” said Dick McKinley, director of Public Works in Paso Robles.

He said he’s bringing more realistic goals to the City Council, which will decide on a course of action.

Cities with many miles of roads to improve — like Atascadero and Paso Robles — face another dilemma as well: Do they concentrate on fixing the worst streets as quickly as possible, or do they budget for preventive maintenance of roads that are in good shape?

Maintaining roads before they reach the point of no return is much less costly in the long run.

“It’s like putting oil in your car engine,” said Ron DeCarli, executive director of SLOCOG. “If you don’t, and you run out of oil, the engine blows.”

Chip sealing — one form of preventive maintenence — typically costs $45,000 per mile, while asphalt overlays cost nearly 10 times that much — between $300,000 and $400,000 per mile, according to San Luis Obispo County’s Pavement Management Report.

The upshot is that residents of some streets full of cracks and craters can wind up waiting years before their streets are properly repaired. Patching can serve as a Band-aid, but that doesn’t last, according to road experts.

And it doesn’t necessarily win any points from local residents.

“They keep doing teeny tiny patch jobs that make absolutely no difference when the entire surface is cracked beyond repair,” wrote Michelle Cullen of Sherwood Road in Paso Robles. “I wish they wouldn’t bother with the repair jobs, because it does diddly squat.”

What to do about potholes

First, go to your city’s website.

Local agencies generally have a way to report a pothole or other road problem; some also have schedules showing when work will be done in a particular area.

The city of Grover Beach, for example, devotes the second week of every month to pothole patrol. It has divided the city into four color-coded sections; each section is scheduled for pothole inspections once every three months.

In unincorporated communities, report a pothole by calling Public Works at 805-781-5252, emailing publicworks@co.slo.ca.us or by going to the Public Work’s page of the county website, www.slocounty.ca.gov. Click on “Contact Us” and use the topic bar to select “Road Service Request.” The county is working on adding a feature that will make it possible for the public to submit a GPS stamped photo.

Public works departments may also have a pavement management plan online that lists the schedule for major road work, so you can check and see if your street is due for maintenance.

Some even offer materials: The city of Atascadero provides cold-mix asphalt to do-it-yourselfers willing to repair potholes themselves. But it’s only for use on public roads that are not maintained by the city. And it can’t be used to create speed bumps, drainage berms or repairs on private driveways.

What to do about potholes

First, go to your city’s website.

Local agencies generally have a way to report a pothole or other road problem; some also have schedules showing when work will be done in a particular area.

The city of Grover Beach, for example, devotes the second week of every month to pothole patrol. It has divided the city into four color-coded sections; each section is scheduled for pothole inspections once every three months.

In unincorporated communities, report a pothole by calling Public Works at 805-781-5252, emailing publicworks@co.slo.ca.us or by going to the Public Work’s page of the county website, www.slocounty.ca.gov. Click on “Contact Us” and use the topic bar to select “Road Service Request.” The county is working on adding a feature that will make it possible for the public to submit a GPS stamped photo.

Public works departments may also have a pavement management plan online that lists the schedule for major road work, so you can check and see if your street is due for maintenance.

Some even offer materials: The city of Atascadero provides cold-mix asphalt to do-it-yourselfers willing to repair potholes themselves. But it’s only for use on public roads that are not maintained by the city. And it can’t be used to create speed bumps, drainage berms or repairs on private driveways.

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