Longwood Drive is among the 36 percent of city streets Portland considers to be in poor condition. (Courtesy city of Portland)
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More than two-thirds of the city’s roads and sidewalks are in only fair condition or worse, according to the Public Works Department, with a maintenance backlog between $162 million and $203 million.

Department Director Chris Branch told the City Council Sustainability and Transportation Committee Jan. 15 that Portland, like the state as a whole, is experiencing a “slow decline” of its transportation infrastructure. But he said the decline in the city is happening at a faster rate.

Public Works is asking the city for $3.7 million for fiscal year 2021 to address 4.6 percent of its road maintenance backlog, which is estimated at between $72 million and $80 million. It wants another $1.85 million to cover 1.26 percent of its sidewalks and ramps backlog, estimated to be between $90 million and $123 million. 

In making the request, Branch said he understands the council faces a tough decision about how to allocate limited funds. 

“All the infrastructure is deteriorating in Portland and it is a very tough decision to prioritize the resources,” he said. “I cannot honestly stand here and tell you that roads are more important than parks. … I don’t feel right trying to lobby to get money from somewhere else.”

Branch said his strategy is to do the types of maintenance that will maintain the roads until more funds are available when the city’s pension obligation bond is retired. 

“We might just put a thin overlay until we can get the money in, say 2027, to make real progress on this stuff,” he said. 

Branch said road maintenance shortfalls are a statewide problem, and the types of winters we have been having are not helping. “Last year was the worst for damage to roads,” he said. 

In fall of 2017, inspections of 212 miles of mainland roads in the city were done using a new technology called StreetScan, a mobile sensor system that detects road defects, developed by researchers at Northeastern University.  

Each road segment receives a pavement condition index rating of 1-100, and these ratings are divided into categories from very poor to excellent. New inspections were conducted last fall, and the city expects data back soon. 

Lauren Anderson, senior engineer for Public Works in charge of the paving program,  presented the 2017 data to the council committee. The data show 19 percent of the roads inspected are in excellent condition, 13 percent are good, 31 percent are fair, 36 percent are poor and 1 percent are very poor.  

For the roads rated good, Anderson said, all that is needed is crack sealing at a cost of $8-$10 per square yard. Roads rated fair would be repaired with 1.5 inches of overlay, estimated at $24-$30 per square yard. Poor roads require mill-fill treatment, or taking off the top layer of pavement and repaving, at $27-33 per square yard. Roads rated very poor require full rehabilitation, or removing all the paving and gravel and rebuilding at $37-$45 per square yard.

The roads to be addressed each year are determined through a complex decision. The department compares data from previous years to determine which roads are deteriorating more rapidly, and those are prioritized. Another goal of the department, Branch said, is to keep all roads above a pavement condition index of 40, the upper limit of the “very poor” category. 

Sidewalks are in a similar state of disrepair: an inventory of 195 miles of sidewalk revealed 16,600 hazards, including tree roots, raised concrete panels, raised gas gate valves, and such obstructions as utility poles. Senior Transportation Engineer Jennifer Ladd said the department is working on some of the hazards that are more easily remedied and reaching out to utility companies to get some of those fixed. Only 10 percent of the sidewalks inventoried comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, she said.  

Branch said the department prioritizes sidewalk work based on condition, how much pedestrian use they get and whether they are part of a safe route to schools. The type of material used also affects the cost of repair: asphalt is least expensive, followed in ascending order by concrete and brick.

Councilor Belinda Ray said she would like to see the city move away from brick in areas where it isn’t required for historic preservation. 

“It’s ludicrous to me that we continue to put bricks all over the place, it is not cost effective,” she said. “We could get much more done if we move to a smarter material.”