By Megan Fricke
Tacoma is infamous for its unmaintained and often bumpy roads. In 2015, a contractor
hired by the city’s street maintenance crew classified 33 percent of Tacoma’s streets as poor or failing. A Citizen Survey conducted in 2018 showed that Tacoma citizens rate street maintenance the worst out of the city’s services.
The roads’ effect on cars can be costly and even dangerous. In 2017, a source who asked to be identified as Vanessa C. hit a pothole which damaged her tire, rim and alignment. She was not aware of the city’s claim process, which would have allowed her to file for compensation for damages. She paid out of pocket — which, despite policy, appears to be the rule rather than the exception.
Even among those who file claims, it is rare to come across someone who receives
significant compensation. One of these cases is claimant Roderick V., who hit a pothole near East Fairbanks Street. The city compensated him $3,895 for damage to his tire and rim.
“I don’t live in Tacoma and it was some of the worst damage to my car,” Roderick said. “I definitely agree something needs to be done.”
Data obtained by a public disclosure request shows that the city of Tacoma spent nearly
$16,000 of taxpayer money to compensate claimants for vehicle damage in 2017 and 2018. This $16,000 was on top of the $250 million of taxes paid for street maintenance in Tacoma in the same period. So why is so much money being spent on street maintenance with little to show for it?
Simply put, Tacoma roads are old and need permanent repair. Permanent repairs are
more expensive than band-aid fixes so street maintenance crews focus on temporary repairs
which enables them to fix more roads for cheaper.
In a 2017 interview with the Tacoma News Tribune, head of the street maintenance crew Rae Bailey said some streets are so destroyed they are referred to as “dead.” So-called dead streets are unable to be maintained until completely rebuilt.
Erik Sloan, pavement manager for the city of Tacoma, said that streets are classified and prioritized for repairs. The city uses a pavement condition information system that classifies streets as: very poor, poor, marginal, fair, good, very good or excellent. The system takes into account street roughness and surface distress.
Sloan said the priority of repairs are not always based on the severity of the street damage.
“Another important factor is coordination with utilities and development,” Sloan explained. “Almost all utilities are under our streets so it wouldn’t make sense to repave a street that might be dug up the next year in order to upgrade or repair utilities.”
There are two ways that the street maintenance crews repair those roads that make the cut.
For older roads that require a permanent fix, chip seal is used. It is a more expensive repair and only allows the crew to fix eight to 12 potholes a day. So, more often than not, the crew opts
to use crack seal. Crack seal allows 80-120 pothole repairs per day and costs less money and
time. This maximizes the amount of streets repaired within allotted funding.
When asked if Sloan believes street maintenance is allotted enough money in the city’s budget, he replied: “the short answer to that question is probably always going to be ‘no’ from me.”
But Sloan does not fault the city exclusively.
“Maintenance of all of our aging infrastructure across the nation is not adequately funded,” he said. “Until we allocate enough funds to maintain the infrastructure we have at an acceptable level, I’ll say we’re not funded appropriately.”
What is there to do? The Tacoma Citizen Survey made clear the desires of Tacoma citizens: allocate more money toward infrastructure or focus on improving public transportation. This is something Sloan says the city has already made progress on.
“Tacoma has come a long way over the last couple of years when it comes to funding,” Sloan said. “We’re a lot closer to being adequately funded in Tacoma than we have been in my time at the city.”