Saturday Diary / It’s pothole city out there, but I’ve seen worse

You wouldn't believe what it was like in the 1970s

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OK, so you’re running over and into a lot of potholes.

What did you expect after one of the harshest winters in years?

Did you really believe roads would be in any better shape while you were paying the same gas tax, motor vehicle registration and driver license fee in 2013 as you did in 1997?

Do you think we’ll be pothole-free some day?

Fat chance.

It was grata-fying for me to see the Pittsburgh Public Works Department patching Schenley Drive in Oakland on Thursday morning, one of many crews in the city and throughout the region taking advantage of warmer weather and putting Band-Aids on roads that have lacked proper attention for too long.

Those new state transportation funding increases branded as “user fees” approved last fall are already starting to improve our plight.

Ergo, if you’re a transportation “user,” you should soon expect to be a “beneficiary” of the extra money through better highways, bridges and public transit, along with the new jobs that an additional $2.4 billion will generate.

The revenue includes what’s called liquid fuels funds allocated to cities, boroughs and townships each spring so they can start seasonal maintenance and construction. The money is distributed according to a formula based on population and miles of locally owned streets.

PennDOT has sent Pittsburgh a check for $6,290,775 based on 893 miles and a population of 305,704.

Good news, Mayor Bill Peduto. That’s $453,596 more than last year. Further, the amount is to go up by 60 percent in steps to about $10 million by the 2017-2018 fiscal year.

The remaining Allegheny County municipalities received $20.3 million to help maintain their 3,281 miles. The figure is to exceed $30 million when the full impact of the new law kicks in.

While liquid fuels funds can be spent on a variety of road-related stuff such as signs, equipment and certain labor, the intent of the original law was to help municipalities build and repair residential-type streets.

PennDOT is responsible for the larger highway system, including the interstates and, in Pitttsburgh, major routes such as Saw Mill Run Boulevard, Ohio River Boulevard, Route 28, Banksville Road, West Liberty Avenue (Route 19) and even Second Avenue through Hazelwood. If you strike a pothole on any of those roads, curse PennDOT, not Mr. Peduto.

Despite the complaints, and except for extremes such as Brookline Boulevard, today’s main roads and local streets are not as riddled with potholes as they were in the 1970s. As transportation writer for more than 36 years at The Pittsburgh Press and then the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, I know. I got to chronicle that mess.

Trust me. As bad as it seems, Pittsburgh is no longer the “Pothole Capital of the World,” a title bestowed more than a generation ago when it was arguably fitting.

Since then, PennDOT and other government entities have become a bit smarter and more proactive when it comes to patching potholes. While resurfacing has fallen behind, today’s roads seem to be holding up somewhat better overall due to factors such as crack sealing, attention to drainage and other preventive maintenance.

Nonetheless, more than 6,100 pothole complaints to Pittsburgh’s 311 Call Center in three months are cause for concern.

Just as troubling, budget constraints mean the city will allocate only $7.1 million (a combination of liquid fuels, capital and other funds) to pave 27 miles of streets this year. That’s far less than 80 miles that ought to be resurfaced every year, a goal not reached since 1999 and seldom reached anytime since 1980.

So what’s Mayor Peduto to do?

A recent PG editorial advised him to use “creative thinking” to take care of its streets. It suggested he “look for new ways to fix old, crumbling pavement.” Good idea.

An older, wiser Mr. Know-It-All — that would be me — has more specific suggestions for Hiz Honor, starting with calling in outside (and free!) expertise, namely the Pennsylvania Asphalt Pavement Association, an industry group whose products, jobs and profits are at stake. Its executive director, Gary Hoffman, was a highly respected administrator responsible for major changes at PennDOT. He’s a nice guy, too.

Since Mayor Peduto supports collaboration, he also should convene a forum of the best and brightest engineering and business minds locally and across the state with the goal of enabling Pittsburgh to get a bigger bang for its limited bucks.

How can pavements be made more durable? Is the city doing something wrong? Are paving depths adequate? Are inspectors doing their jobs? Can the $250,000-a-mile cost of city resurfacing be lowered?

Does the city need off-duty police for traffic control? Are paving priorities in order? Have all funding sources been tapped? Can the county help? Should resources be shifted? Is it time for a “crash program?”

From neighborhood streets and larger “collector roads” to special corridors and major arteries, we can do better. If Pittsburgh wants to get ahead, people need to get around.

Joe Grata is a retired Post-Gazette staff writer living in Washington Township, Fayette County. He’s also a member of the Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission, which sets priorities for state and federal transportation funding in the region.

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