Pothole Prayers

Saturday night, and you’re making plans for a night on the town. Same with the three guys wearing reflector vests over hooded sweatshirts on Maxwell Avenue, shoveling a lukewarm mix of asphalt and polymer into a three-inch crater in the street. Osman Orellana and Tim Biggar have been cruising slowly down Maxwell checking off the potholes on their list and looking for ones that have gone unreported. It’s dark out, so Brandon Grimm plods along behind them in a city pickup bejeweled with flashing lights and arrows. When the two pop out to patch another hole, Grimm parks behind to protect them.

Orellana, a New Orleans native who has lived in Spokane for almost 20 years, says he hasn’t seen a winter like this. “This is bad,” he says, patting the tarred hole with the flat side of his shovel.

Record snowfall and a constant freeze-thaw cycle have left Spokane’s streets in shambles and crews like this one can’t keep up. The streets department says they’ve received almost 1,200 pothole reports this year. And those are just the ones that have been called in. Orellana says his crew could patch up to 100 of them in a night, but they’ve got to go back for new asphalt two or three times during their 10-hour shift — and that’s only if they’re allowed to work potholes for the whole shift. The night before, Biggar says, they had to hang up their shovels when it got cold around 10 pm and head out with the de-icer trucks.

“We plow, we pothole, we de-ice, we sand. We’re a jack of all trades,” Biggar says.

When resources are spread thin, you make do with what you have.

In case you hadn’t noticed (and who hasn’t?), this has been one hell of a winter for Spokane, with copious snowfall leaving behind a possibly unprecedented array of bruises, cracks and craters on city streets. When Hillary Clinton, visiting Spokane earlier this month, said she’ll remember “driving down the streets and seeing there’s lots of work to be done here,” everyone knew what she meant: it’s like driving around Beirut out there.

It’s not only the snowfall that’s busted up the streets, though; it’s the peculiar cycle of snow, melt, snow, melt that has been hard on the blacktop. Traffic engineers point out how snow gets into the cracks of the street, turns to water, then freezes again — expanding and breaking the asphalt. Then it does it again. And again. Each freeze-thaw cycle is like a heave on a crow bar.

“We’re not exempt from the rest of the nation,” Orellana says. “They’re seeing it in Chicago, New York, everywhere.”

Still, Spokane’s streets were in laughable condition even before this winter’s onslaught. (And kvetching about road conditions has been this city’s pastime for years.) Officials in the streets department and the mayor’s office agree: Spokane’s streets haven’t been a high enough priority. At a press conference last week, Mayor Mary Verner acknowledged that funding for — and manpower to — the streets department has dwindled over the last decades even while the size of the city — and the number of people using city streets — has grown and grown.

“We’ve been robbing Peter to pay Paul,” says Verner. “Our street maintenance has not been adequate.”

This week the mayor announced plans to change that, dramatically beefing up the city’s streets department. For the short term, she directed the department to put seven two-person teams out on the streets fixing potholes, instead of the usual two. The crews — like the one on Maxwell Avenue on Saturday night — are now running 20 hours a day, seven days a week. Meanwhile, the mayor is urging citizens to use the city’s hotline, 625-7733, to report any potholes they find. The worst offenders, the city says, should be patched within 48 hours.

For the longer term, Verner says she’ll petition the city council to release $500,000 from the city’s new contingent reserve fund for further street work once construction season begins in April. That’s about 3 percent of the department’s annual budget. She also plans to add extra money for street work and snow plowing in her 2009 budget. A press release issued last week stated, “The mayor is hopeful that the city council will support such a request.”

Several council members have already voiced support for the idea. The streets department isn’t likely to complain, either.

“That will help,” says Mark Serbousek, the department’s head. “It’ll give us some more money because we — let’s face it, we’ve robbed Peter and Paul to pay Mary in our snow budget and everything else. We’ve [already] taken money out of our asphalt budget to pay for snow [plowing].”

But he adds that it’s a larger question of priorities. “At what level of condition do you want your streets? If you want it in pristine condition, it takes so much money to hold it to that position.” Commenting on a figure of $7 million posed to the Spokesman-Review by utilities director Dave Mandyke, he says, “With $7 million, we’d hoped we could level off. It wouldn’t be pristine – we would still have cracks and alligatoring (criss-cross eruptions in the asphalt) and rutting.”

Asked what level Spokane is paying for – and getting – today, Serbousek says, “Failing. Seriously. We have an indexing system of zero to 100 for our streets. We are right now at probably about a 60, 62. This winter really destroyed our streets … I’m sure it’s gonna drop a few points.”

He’d like to see the streets at 80 or above. “That would be a huge number. That would give us streets we could maintain every 10 years … [making] minor inexpensive fixes as opposed to totally reconstructing the streets.” The city’s doing that now with its massive bond-funded street project.

But that’s going to take money and personnel that the department says it doesn’t have after years of shrinking general funds and relatively mild winters. “We’re to the point now where we’re so bare bones that we just need to get some help.”

The strain shows out on the street. One heavy equipment operator who was filling in on radio dispatch last weekend was reluctant even to give The Inlander access to the pothole crews. “It depends on if you’re going to tell the truth,” he said, opining that street crews have gotten unfair blame for the whims of nature. He says the department is simply playing the hand of poorly constructed streets it was dealt by previous generations. “That’s the problem we’re sitting on now,” he said. A couple inches of asphalt laid over bare dirt. Sink holes. Mud boils. Alligatoring.

Out on Maxwell Avenue, with cars plunging through the dark in the next lane, Osman Orellano steps forward with a grave look in his eye. “We’re risking our lives out here. I got a family at home.” He motions towards the street. “This is mellow. But you get to the arterials — Hamilton, Market … Just today, I had to do this to my partner,” he says, grabbing him and pantomiming pulling him out of the way of a speeding car.

The crew gives its pothole a final pat. It’s just a Band-Aid. You can’t get the good stuff — the hot mix — this time of year. So you make do with a tepid mix of asphalt that may not last a month, maybe not even a week. But there are 1,199 more potholes out there waiting for them. They’ll come back and fix it later.

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