Crumbling away

No help for disintegrating streets in city’s proposed 2017-18 budget

Cracked pavement at the corner of Fourth and Chestnut streets.

Cracked pavement at the corner of Fourth and Chestnut streets.

Photo by Howard Hardee

In no uncertain terms, the Chico City Council was told on Tuesday (May 2) what motorists, cyclists and pedestrians already know: The city’s streets are falling apart.

As part of the council’s ongoing discussions of the city’s proposed 2017-18 budget, the Public Works Department’s management duo—Erik Gustafson (operations and maintenance) and Brendan Ottoboni (engineering)—painted a troubling picture of Chico’s infrastructure. Overall, the quality of street surfaces here grade poorly, according to a city-contracted survey of streets called the Pavement Management Plan. The survey rates streets on a scale of 0 to 100, with “0” being a dirt road and “100” being a brand-new paved one, Gustafson said. Chico’s average score is 60; the state’s is 66.

Roadways will get much worse—and more expensive to fix—if the council does not change its budget priorities in coming years, he added: “The longer we put things off, the more costly they become.”

It would take $7 million annually to maintain the current condition of the city’s streets and an additional $3 million a year to make significant improvements, Gustafson said. But the 2017-18 budget earmarks $1 million for road maintenance, a total that includes engineering, street sweeping and sidewalk repair. About $100,000 is devoted to laying down new asphalt.

One positive takeaway, Gustafson said, is the city’s new waste-hauling franchise agreement. In open-market competition for years, Recology and Waste Management collected trash along many of the same routes, but the new deal stands to reduce wear and tear on streets from heavy trucks by splitting up the companies’ areas of operation. It also would direct some $600,000 in fees to the city’s general fund—money that could offset the cost of street repairs if the City Council sets such a policy.

While public safety (read: hiring cops) has been the panel’s No. 1 priority in recent years, all infrastructure—streets, bridges, sewers, storm drains, rights-of-way, bike paths, landscaping, parks and street trees—has fallen by the wayside. “Barely maintaining” everything would cost about $16.2 million annually, Ottoboni said, and the city has set aside a total of $6.6 million for infrastructure improvements in 2017-18.

“There’s a big discrepancy there,” Ottoboni said.

On a positive note, he added, the engineering division has secured $34 million in state and federal grants since May 2015 to fund a host of future projects, including revamping The Esplanade; widening Bruce Road to four lanes and adding a buffered bike lane; completing Bikeway 99, the arterial north-to-south path paralleling Highway 99; modernizing bridges crossing Little Chico Creek; remodeling the Highway 99 off-ramp at Eaton Road; and adding a bike lane on Ivy Street.

It’s a monumental workload for a bare-bones staff. One development engineer is handling about 180 projects, Ottoboni said. As such, Public Works is requesting to add an associate engineer position.

“Our ability to jump on certain priority projects is sometimes limited,” Ottoboni said.

Public Works sorely needs six workers for tree and park maintenance as well, Gustafson said. Given the council’s financial constraints, he did not request to fill those positions in the 2017-18 budget.

Jason Anderson, an operations and maintenance worker for the city, made his case for greater investment in Public Works. “We’re probably the only department in the city that can say 99 percent of the citizens use our products,” he said. “The things we maintain, they touch and drive on. They get a tangible result for their dollar.”

The budget is scheduled to be finalized June 6.

In other council news:

• At Councilman Andrew Coolidge’s request, the panel waived permit fees for business owners whose storefronts have been vandalized.

Coolidge brought the issue forward during the council’s April 4 meeting after hearing from business owners victimized by a recent uptick in vandalism. The city required business owners to pay a $145 permit fee to repair windows or awnings—even those damaged by vandalism—to cover an inspection of the replacement. The fee added insult to injury, business owners argued.

Councilman Mark Sorensen made a motion to waive the fee and place the liability on business owners, but Leo DePaola, the city’s building official, cautioned against doing away with inspections entirely.

“We inspect for the public’s safety,” he said. “I feel like the inspection portion of this is a critical thing.”

Nevertheless, the council voted 6-1, with Ann Schwab dissenting, in favor of Sorensen’s motion.

• The council shot down a project it approved last September: a parklet-style feature outside of Starbucks on Broadway. Mayor Sean Morgan, who had voted in favor of the concept, recently reconsidered.

“For a variety of reasons, my opinion changed—not least of which, what’s happened with the public bathrooms in City Plaza,” he said. “My concern became that the Starbucks manager and our own police officers may not be able to enforce some of the transient issues if that parklet got built.”

The council voted 5-1 to reverse its previous decision. (Schwab recused herself due to owning a business within 500 feet of Starbucks.) Councilman Karl Ory cast the lone nay vote, explaining that he believed backtracking on an approved project would send a negative message to business owners and developers.

• The council voted unanimously to hold a future discussion of Coolidge’s proposal for a volunteer-based tree-planting program at One-Mile Recreation Area in Lower Bidwell Park. Over the past several years, he said, storms and high winds have knocked down “dozens, if not hundreds of trees.”