Taking it to the streets 

Voters could give the Streets Department a $50 million boost, but how is it using its budget now?

click to enlarge 2020 forecasted road maintenance identification at current funding versus with the 0.62% sales tax. - COURTESY CITY OF COLORADO SPRINGS
  • Courtesy City of Colorado Springs
  • 2020 forecasted road maintenance identification at current funding versus with the 0.62% sales tax.

The ballots are out, and Colorado Springs voters will decide whether to grant the city a 0.62 percent sales tax increase to fix crumbling roads. There's no arguing the streets are a mess, but skepticism about Ballot Issue 2C remains among voters.

Is a tax that would produce $50 million annually over five years really needed? What is the city doing with the money it already has?

Corey Farkas, the city's Streets Division manager, says if the tax passes, he'll fix streets that have been pinpointed for two factors: a lot of traffic and a lot of problems. Farkas says he's making the most of his $25.7 million 2015 budget, nearly $14.9 million from the Pikes Peak Rural Transportation Authority's dedicated sales tax. Duties of his 94-position department include in-house functions (like snow plowing, street sweeping and repairing of potholes) as well as overseeing contracted work like overlaying, rebuilding and sealing roads, and laying and repairing concrete.

"We know exactly, from month to month, what we're going to do, how many people and how much equipment we need to do it," Farkas says, "so that we can get very, very surgical on our budgeting and have really no waste."

Still, according to 2014 data, 61 percent of Colorado Springs roads need an overlay (repaving) or a complete rebuild. Year-to-date, Farkas' department had filled over 55,000 potholes by late October, compared to about 28,000 at the same time in 2014. Pothole repair, relatively speaking, isn't a big expense ($325,634 this year), but it is a sisyphean task — potholes simply come back.

Farkas hears from plenty of out-of-the-box thinkers with solutions for city streets, but most aren't feasible. Some suggest switching to gravel roads, but the few gravel roads in the city need more maintenance than paved ones, Farkas says. They get rutted and wash out, and they cause major problems for drainage systems.

Others say new types of asphalt are the solution. The division has tried longer-lasting asphalt with rubber added. Farkas says it's performed wonderfully in some spots, average in others — not a rousing endorsement for an expensive material.

Repaving the old-fashioned way is plenty expensive — it averaged about $140,000 per lane mile in 2014. About half the cost is concrete. The Americans with Disabilities Act requires the city to bring sidewalks and pedestrian ramps up to code, and curbs and gutters must be repaired as well.

We asked Farkas to explain what he's doing to stretch the taxpayer dollar.

How much of your budget is going to maintenance versus repaving?

"The vast majority of what we're doing goes toward paving ... When we're out there paving the roads, we're actually taking care of the issue ... The pothole budget is adequate enough to take care of what we need to take care of as far as the symptoms go, but we really want to put more of our money into taking care of the issues."

How does our system of roads compare to other cities?

"We are enormous. People don't realize how big we are in Colorado Springs. We cover 194 square miles, we have 5,661 lane miles of road to maintain. To put that in perspective, if you took all of our lane miles and put them back to back to back, it's going to go from the Colorado Springs airport, to about 40 miles past Rome, Italy ... As far as municipalities go up and down the Front Range, the only one that's even close to us is Denver."

Have you made organizational changes recently?

"Absolutely. The first thing I did when I got here is I wanted to give us some structure ... So for our big program, our contracted programs ... [we] broke the city up into four districts ... we inspect a quarter of the city a year, so this year we inspected the north part of the city. That central part of the city, we went ahead and did all of our chip seal. The southern part got the paving, and over in the west is where we did all of our pre-overlay concrete. And then every year after that, everything moves in a clockwise motion ... So what we're doing there is, No. 1, we consolidated our contractors to one portion of the town, so we're saving on mobilization fees. For a paving contractor to pick up their entire paving operation and move all the way to the northeast side of town from the southwest side of town, costs a lot of money. ... The other piece was, it gave us, in the Streets Division, an opportunity to get very organized. We were able to, with this structure, put together a five-year plan ... And then the other piece was public perception ... by consolidating into a particular area, citizens are seeing a little more happening."

Since most work is done by contractors, how do you monitor them?

"Our No. 1 priority is to spend the taxpayers' money responsibly ... so we have a fairly robust inspection program. We send inspectors out, they're watching all of our contractors. We've been doing that for quite a while now, and I've taken it another step to where we've got very good documentation for every street that's done. Every project we do in the Streets Division, we're creating project books. In that project book goes a copy of the contract, we've got a copy of all the meeting minutes from pre-construction meetings ... we have weekly meetings with our contractors ... and copies of that all go in there, and we have inspection check sheets. I created inspection check sheets so that when ... the inspectors go out there, they know exactly what they're supposed to be looking at, and they take photographs. If we ever have to go back to the contractor for warranty work, we've got all of that documentation there."

How long are road warranties?

"It's typically a two-year warranty."

In that two-year period, are you checking for warranty problems?

"Yes. I don't know how much we were doing that prior to me being here the last two years, but we are doing that now ... All of the roadways we paved last year, we'll be inspecting this year."

People are concerned roads are lasting two years instead of 10 years. Is the problem the quality of paving jobs or the maintenance?

"It's kind of like buying a new car. You're not going to buy a new car and then just drive it. ... Have the contractors put down bad roads? No. Because if the contractors put down bad roads, our inspectors are going to say, 'Hey, this is not within specification, you need to fix that.' And we actually have done that; we did it this year. We had an issue on a road, I don't know what it was from, but we had some washboard effect. We called them on it. They came back a week later and fixed it."

What do you do when you see signs a road is starting to come apart at weak spots, like seams between lanes?

"You come through and put a chip seal down. It's a great way to prolong that roadway's life. When you're putting down that chip seal, you're sealing all these potential failure spots ... what we plan on doing is when a road hits that 5-, 6-, 7-year mark, we need to be looking at it for chip seal."

So, if properly maintained in this way, a road will last about 10 years?

"If you're doing these preventive maintenance measures, you can have roadways that last 20 years. Typically, without doing anything to it, 13 years is what you can expect out of a roadway. Interesting thing, over the first 75 percent of a roadway's life, you get this 40 percent drop in quality. Over the next 12 percent of that roadway's life, you get an additional 40 percent drop in quality. ... What our [data] told us is that 61 percent of our roadways are ... at that tipping point where they're starting to nosedive. So when people ask me, 'How do you know that next year's going to be worse than this year in potholes?' Well, it's where our roadways are at in their life cycle."

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