To pave the way for better streets, read on and demand better service for your tax dollars
Ten years ago, President Bill Clinton had been impeached by the House of Representatives and tried by the Senate for perjury. At the end of the trial the roll was called to determine whether Clinton would be convicted and removed from office. One by one, the senators pronounced Slick Willie either "guilty" or "not guilty."
Then the roll call reached Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.). Long derided by conservatives as a squishy moderate, a RINO (Republican in Name Only), Specter couldn't bring himself to convict or acquit the cigar aficionado-in-chief. So he came up with a third option: "Not proven."
When it comes to the two propositions for street improvements--a general obligation (GO) bond issue and a sales tax--on next Tuesday's ballot, I'm tempted to borrow Specter's verdict.
While it's the general opinion that Tulsa's streets are in bad condition, there's a dispute about whether the proposition before the voters will start the process of getting the streets fixed or will leave us five years hence, almost half a billion dollars poorer and no closer to having smooth streets.
A few weeks ago (in the October 16-22 issue), I voiced my doubts about the "Mama Bear package"--the five-year plan that was substituted at the last moment for the 12-year, $2 billion, "Papa Bear" plan. (Bill Christiansen's $270 million "Baby Bear" never had a chance. Mayor Kathy "Goldilocks" Taylor ate his porridge all up.)
It wouldn't make sense to spend more money on the same approach to street maintenance that got us into our current predicament, so in an Oct. 9 entry on my blog, batesline.com, I asked three questions, all of them to do with whether there would be any changes to the way the Tulsa Public Works Department (TPWD) does business:
(1) Will the City aggressively advertise contracting opportunities to out-of-area firms so we can have a more robust competition for road work?
(2) Will the City do a better job of coordinating projects with ODOT, so the City doesn't snarl alternate routes while ODOT is working on a freeway?
(3) I see money in the package for rebuilding streets, as we've been doing. But where is the money for paving, crack sealing, milling and overlay? Is there adequate money in this package for the preventive maintenance we haven't been doing?
Last Friday, Oct. 24, I received, via Councilor G. T. Bynum, an unsigned response, ostensibly from the TPWD. (The document metadata listed Waller Public Relations as the author.) At 2,800 words, it's too lengthy to quote in full, but here's the gist. (The full text is posted at batesline.com.)
TPWD's bids are open to contractors from outside Tulsa, and jobs are advertised on the city's website. Project plans are provided to regional and national construction databases like Southwest Construction News the Dodge Report, allowing contractors in other states access to the information needed to prepare a bid.
There are some hurdles for outside contractors seeking to do business here. Contractors must be pre-qualified by TPWD before submitting a bid on a project to demonstrate technical capability and financial viability. Tulsa's technical specifications differ from industry standards in a few aspects: "[T]here are unique items we have added because they perform well and there are other portions deleted because they have not worked over the years."
A large, long-range consistent program will help bring new contractors to Tulsa. Contractors will be more willing to make the initial investment to pre-qualify and to learn how to do business in Tulsa if they know there will be plenty of projects up for bid over several years.
Although out-of-area contractors are welcome to bid, there isn't a process in place to solicit them to seek work here. The TPWD reply suggested that the city could send a mailing to contractors who have been approved or pre-qualified by surrounding state Departments of Transportation. The mailing would "introduce the funding program and explain our pre-qualification ordinance with information on how to be eligible to work for the City."
Regarding coordination with ODOT on the timing of road projects, the TPWD replied that there are coordination meetings between the two agencies. So much work is planned on Tulsa's highway network, "holding off arterial rehab in the vicinity of these facilities will be a challenge." Avoiding a conflict between highway projects and city streets, water, sewer, and stormwater projects will not always be possible.
That brings us to the big question: Does this package represent a difference from the way we've always done street maintenance, from the focus, over many years, on street reconstruction rather than routine and preventive (R&P) maintenance.
According to the TPWD response, "Arterial streets would receive $15,494,000 and the non-arterial streets would receive $25,282,000" for routine and preventive maintenance. "These funds would be used for crack sealing, fog sealing and overlays with some milling or leveling courses." The 2006 "Third Penny" tax included only $2 million for arterial R&P and $3 million for non-arterial R&P. So under the Mama Bear package R&P funding will increase by a factor of 8.
The TPWD response also points out that the rehabilitation program, which amounts to about 70 percent of the total package, will include overlays, depending on the condition of the road segment:
"The rehabilitation category includes overlays. Depending on the road segment it may include patching from 0 percent to 30 percent of the area. Each road segment is different. Some you can move right to an overlay with tacking to the existing pavement; some require leveling courses, milling and/or patching to address subgrade or pavement section failures. The idea is not just overlaying without regard to what you are 'covering up'.
"One of the keys to successful overlay program is the preparation work. If not prepared properly, overlays will not survive our freeze-thaw cycles and storm events. We will have pop-offs from concrete and/or base or subgrade failures will show themselves again in a short amount of time through the newly overlaid roadway. There is a balance to consider when looking at traffic loads, original street section, and the adjacent uses as to the type of appropriate repairs."
One of the most startling statements in the response was a passing comment:
"Our funding over the past 16 years has been right at 50 percent of the funds needed to maintain a PCI through a funding package term. We have been on a downward trend for many years."
So, we've gone through four Third Penny packages and two or three GO bond issues, and none of them have come close to an adequate amount for street maintenance and rehabilitation. Were we ever warned?
Obviously there were other capital needs through those years, including the need to fund stormwater improvements and to comply with Federal mandates on our sanitary sewer system. Still, Susan Savage and Bill LaFortune told us we should approve extra sales taxes for an arena, instead of urging us to up our taxes to keep our streets from getting worse.
Maybe a Better Way
Critics of the five-year street tax plan remain unmoved. Councilors Bill Martinson, John Eagleton, and Rick Westcott, all advocates for the 12-year plan, have confirmed that they will vote no on both propositions. In a press release earlier this month, Martinson said, "In the early 1980s, Tulsa had over 220 employees assigned to street maintenance." Although lane miles have doubled since then, the number of employees is now 69, only a third of what it was. Martinson's plan would have restored 100 positions to street maintenance over time.
Martinson wrote that Mayor Taylor's plan, the plan on the November ballot, "provides minimal resources for street maintenance, no additional funding for right of way maintenance, graffiti abatement or traffic engineering and has NO funding for widening. While it may hold the pavement condition relatively steady, it will increase the backlog of work by $64 million."
He concludes, "In my opinion, the street propositions on November 4 ballot will not fix the fundamental problems relating to our streets and will ultimately cost the taxpayers of Tulsa hundreds of millions of dollars more than necessary. Accordingly, I will be voting NO on both propositions."
Martinson, Eagleton, and Westcott say that if Mayor Taylor's proposal fails, they'll be ready to put their original 12-year plan back before the voters as soon as the law allows. But if a five-year plan fails, does a 12-year plan involving four times the amount of money have a chance of passage?
Meanwhile, County Assessor Ken Yazel thinks there's a way to fund streets without increasing the overall property tax burden. Yazel says that four, county-wide entities with their own dedicated millages--Tulsa Technology Center, Tulsa Community College, Tulsa City/County Health Department, and Tulsa City/County Library--have $159 million in carryover funds from previous years.
These dedicated levies, which make up about a third of your property tax bill, generate far more revenue each year than these entities can spend. Tulsa Technology Center's dedicated building levy has encouraged the vo-tech school to build facilities it doesn't really need.
Reduce the property tax rates for those entities by a combined 12 mills and you make some room for cities to issue GO bonds without raising the overall property tax rate.
This idea can only come to fruition if the County Commission puts it on the ballot. Sally Bell, the Republican nominee for the District 2 County Commission seat, has expressed support for Yazel's idea on the campaign trail. Some voters are arguing that the County should let voters cut those millages first before the City asks for a millage increase for streets.
There's a question about the streets package that I raised in my previous column that still hasn't been answered: I've heard that this plan is pay-as-you-go. Because it's a short-term package, the city won't try to borrow against future revenues. That means it won't be able to begin spending the money before it has been collected.
Preventive maintenance can't be funded with general obligation bond issue money. It has to be funded by sales tax. Will preventive maintenance be funded immediately if these propositions pass, or will it be delayed until the existing Third Penny package has been fully funded, sometime in 2012? If not, which funded projects from the 2006 Third Penny will be delayed to allow preventive maintenance to begin now?
Stay tuned. But in the meantime, we need to ramp up our preventive maintenance efforts right away. I can't see voting for a plan that doesn't make that happen.
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