Pa-dump, pa-dump. That's the sound you hear, and feel, when you suddenly encounter a street patch over a place where crews have dug in to repair a water line or bury a fiber optic cable.
These patches are all over the place in Colorado Springs, because streets are dug up thousands of times annually, based on permit data provided by the city. Since 2008, the city has issued 9,070 permits for excavation of city streets, and another 6,299 permits for concrete work, usually involving curbs and gutters.
Aware that such cuts weaken the pavement and undermine the road base's integrity, about a decade ago the city beefed up its oversight and rules for cutting into city streets. Before then, there wasn't even a permit program, says city engineering inspection supervisor Steve Bodette. Now, the city requires permits, forces contractors to compact the underlying dirt to a prescribed standard, and inspects the repairs.
But pavement work still brings problems. On Fillmore Street west of Interstate 25, a street patch made by a Colorado Springs Utilities contractor, Trax Construction, is failing, meaning that when you drive your car over the spot, it dips and lifts you like you're in The Dukes of Hazzard. The patch is slumping after only five weeks, Bodette says. The city requires that patches last at least two years, and if they don't, the contractor is forced to redo it.
The city's streets have a value of $502 million, according to city officials. But dwindling budgets have reduced the number of streets the city can overlay every year. In 2006, 310 lane-miles of its streets were resurfaced. This year they expect to do only 84.5 lane-miles.
"City streets are one of our biggest assets and one of our most widely used assets by the public," city spokesperson Mary Scott says, "so maintaining them is one of our top public works priorities. It's expensive to overlay a street, so we certainly want to limit the number of [pavement] cuts where possible.
"However," she adds, "we recognize that most of our utility infrastructure does run under our street system, so it's difficult to deal with. We use the fee system to do our best to maintain them."
It's one thing to keep the city's 7,400 lane-miles of paved roads in good shape. It's even more difficult when water, gas, electric and cable crews are running around digging into streets — some just freshly overlaid with asphalt. That doesn't happen much anymore, but it happened enough a decade ago that city officials changed the rules and started meeting every other month with Utilities officials to avoid busting into brand-new paving jobs.
Now, the city will hold off asphalting a road for months or even a year if Utilities plans a major water-line replacement requiring a pavement cut, Scott says. Bodette gives Galley Road as one example: The city put off overlaying the street because Utilities planned a line replacement that required trenching for blocks beneath Galley.
"Coordination is getting better," Scott says. "But there's always going to be problems."
That's chiefly because Utilities can't predict when a water line will break, or a gas line will rupture. Utilities, not surprisingly, is the city's biggest customer for pavement cuts, accounting for 70 percent of the $10 million the city has collected in the past three-plus years in fees for permits associated with cutting into city streets. Those include concrete, excavation and traffic control fees and permits, and pavement degradation fees.
The degradation fees, designed to ensure the road is restored to its original condition, by far comprise the largest portion of the fees: $7 million of the $10 million collected since 2008.
Hard to keep up
Another issue facing the city deals with staffing. Bodette says his five inspectors and two traffic-control inspectors — fewer than in the past, again due to budget cuts — who visit job sites and verify compaction reports, get to only 60 percent of the trenching sites while they're underway or freshly finished.
But inspectors try to check all pavement patches 60 days prior to the expiration of the two-year warranty period. "A majority of them are in pretty good shape," he says, while admitting the city doesn't track failures in its database to determine which contractors have the most problems or what streets or sections of town are the most problematic.
When it comes to trenching, the city draws the line on brand-new streets.
"There's a three-year moratorium on new streets," Bodette says, unless special permission is granted by the engineering department.
For Utilities, trenching is a fairly sizeable expense. It has paid $21.3 million in the last three years on paving cuts and boring and street repairs associated with trenching. That includes the permit fees and repairs to sprinkler systems, landscaping and other minor work needed by Utilities. The utility has set aside $11 million this year for such work.