Portland’s Streets: Better Quality, Fewer Maintained

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By Mike Scoggin,

A Portland City Auditor’s report finds that while the city’s Department of Transportation has improved quality assurance, it is resurfacing fewer streets

Taken for granted, most people would be surprised to find out that 25% of the Rose City’s total assets are its roads. Valued at $5.4 billion, there are 3949 lane-miles of improved streets in Portland. This does not include the signals, lights or sidewalks. In August, the Portland City Auditor found that the city’s street maintenance a mixed bag: the quality of work and adherence to State guidelines has improved and Portland Department of Transportation (PDOT) is becoming more cost-effective – PDOT is now resurfacing fewer streets, increasing the backlog of work, increasing costs.

PDOT maintains Portland’s streets with gas tax and parking revenue, which have barely increased in seven years and have not kept up with inflation. Surface maintenance accounts for 66% of the PDOT budget.

Commissioner of Public Utilities, Mayor-elect Sam Adams requested the Auditor’s August report, following up a 2006 audit of PDOT’s street preservation. That report found PDOT inefficient and out of compliance with State law. Oregon law requires the City to demonstrate that if it performs “public improvement” projects (as defined by law), and that it performs them at “least-cost” (ORS 279C). That report made 13 recommendations to follow State mandates. Eight of the Auditor’s recommendations have been met; an additional two to be met by the end of September and steps are being made to implement the remaining. PDOT is now in compliance.

Now the work is being done more cost-effectively; still, less is being done.

New contract guidelines require suppliers to be responsible for quality control, and PDOT and the City laboratory implementing a new quality assurance (QA) strategy’s tests. PDOT has assigned an engineer to better manage the maintenance selection processes and to develop new information management and decision-making tools. Eventually, these changes should bring down costs and increase maintenance work in a timely manner – just not yet.

Until it completes a means of comparing costs to those of private contractors determining least-cost, PDOT has had to temporarily refrain from projects that may be considered a public improvement under the legal definition. By limiting the size of its Street Preservation projects, PDOT has reduced its street preservation work, with needed street repairs backing up, increasing the overall price tag as prices rise and the degree of work needed increases through neglect.

The report concludes urging quicker implementation of the improved processes with a higher funding priority for street preservation.