Even since Houston 'rain tax,' road repaving down

Road Hard: Despite promises, street paving in Houston has sharply declined and money for large road projects is shrinking (KTRK)
May 1, 2014 2:33:19 PM PDT
Road paving in Houston has sharply declined, the number of sections of craggy streets replaced by city crews has dropped off dramatically, and the amount of patchwork done to repair streets has fallen off a cliff, records obtained by ABC-13 show.

It's uncertain whether Houston road repairs will improve in the immediate future.

According to city records, curbside-to-curbside road paving has dropped markedly over the past five years; around 140 miles of Houston's pothole-marked and craggy roads have been paved this year, compared to nearly 280 miles paved in 2008 ?- a 53 percent decrease.

The number of concrete panels used to replace sections of fractured and cracked streets dramatically declined. Just over 250,000 panels were used this past year, down from nearly 400,000 panels used in 2009. That's a 38 percent drop.

The number of pothole-fixing asphalt patches is hovering at 16,000, which is down from 19,000 in 2012.

And when it comes to Houston's major capital road in transportation improvements, $265 million was spent in 2010. That dropped to $221 million in 2014.

Mayor Annise Parker has said that less money is being spent on projects in order to pay down debt and build up the city's savings to pay "as you go" for future projects, but records show there will not be a major increase in capital project spending until 2019 ? four years after Parker has left office.

These numbers are probably no surprise to drivers. They certainly aren't to Eric Dargan, deputy director of the city's Public Works Department.

"When I was hired on 12 years ago, we were doing twice than we're doing now," Dargan said. "Over the years, we've had budget cuts or we've had budgets being held in place. Fewer roads are being fixed."

And are fewer roads being fixed now compared to three years ago?

"Three years ago compared to today? That's probably true, too," he said.

Indeed, the city's infrastructure has for years suffered under increased use and a growing population. As far back as 1989, road funds were cut in favor of the more politically-appealing police and fire staff increases. More recently, the city's overall budget increased by more than half, but some critics complained that not enough money found its way to road repair.

Dargan and other city leaders, including Parker, say road improvements are sure to improve soon. They point to Rebuild Houston, the massive citywide street and drainage improvement plan.

Rebuild Houston is funded, in part, by Houston homeowners via a drainage fee, which is derided by critics as a "rain tax." Voters approved it in 2010 by a 51-49 percent margin.

"I'm confident it will change as we move forward because Rebuild Houston has already started that process," Dargan said, pointing to future capital projects and maintenance.

But while Houston taxpayers have been shelling out extra fees since that 2010 vote, ABC-13 has found that the city has done far less repaving and concrete work since before the drainage fee was approved at the ballot box.

ABC-13 viewers have notice the lack of road work. Hundreds took to ABC-13's Facebook page and Twitter using the hashtag #HoustonsWorstRoad to make their voices heard. A sampling from Facebook includes:

"Shame between barker cypress and greenhouse it is horrible," writes Janel Coulston.

Debbie J Davis writes: "Campbell Rd between Hempstead and Clay!!!! Horrible!"

Leticia Guardiola has a laundry list of rough roads. "Little York, Victory, Hardy, Collingsworth, Jensen, Wirt, Long Point," she wrote.

Wendy Oliver writes that "Hughes Road in the Southbelt area," is the worst.

Justin Reeder just had one declaration in caps: "RICHMOND."

Neidra Davis summed it up for many: "Impossible to choose just one; the roads in this supposedly prosperous city are an embarrassment to all of us who call Houston home!! Pathetic and inexcusable!"

Public works deputy Dargan, though, points to the success of the city's 311 line, where Houston residents can call to report problems ? including potholes.

"Potholes, we're on those almost immediately," he said. At maximum, Dargan said there was a five-day business day turnaround in getting potholes filled.

Records show that in most months where weather is cooperative, the city fills thousands of potholes.

In January of this year, 4,988 were filled. In October of 2013, 4,435; in September 2013 2,957; and in August of 2013, 7,413.

But Doug Fry questions if the city's pothole-filling efforts are a real success story.

Fry works for trucking company Texas Freight Services off Greens Road near Bush Intercontinental Airport. Greens Road has a major pothole problem, he said.

"A lot of our drivers won't go near Greens Road if they can avoid it," Fry said. "It's been bad since I started working here. I started here in June of 2011."

Drivers try to use service roads if they are able, he said.

The city does fill the potholes, but those fills are all too temporary, according to Fry.

"They come out periodically and patch the roads but the patches don't last very long," he said. "We're not even talking months. Sometimes it's a matter of weeks before they've crumbled out again."

On four-and-a-half miles of Greens Road alone, the city has fixed 986 potholes in the past three years.

Dargan conceded that pothole fixes don't last forever. But he sends his crews out to fix them quickly because potholes are dangerous to drivers. When money isn't available for a comprehensive road fix, the same pothole may be repaired several times.

City officials have also pledged to fix the "worst first" when it comes to roads.

The mayor even took to Twitter days before her re-election last year to make that pledge: "I share your frustrations with the condition of our streets. Can't fix years of problems overnight. We're rebuilding from worst first."

In part, the city uses a $500,000 van equipped with lasers on the bumpers and computers in the cab to drive around the city and calculate the worst roads. But even using the city's own data, less than half of the worst roads have been fixed "first."

Dargan urged Houston drivers to look on the bright side and to look at the city as a whole.

"The condition of Houston streets, overall, is very good," he said. "Ninety percent of the streets in Houston are in pretty good condition.

"If (drivers) stepped back and looked at the entire city, and not just their neighborhood and looked at the fact that we have 650 square miles of territory and 16,000 lane miles of streets. Not every street has a pothole on it. There are a number of streets in my mind in Houston that are really good streets."

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