Potholes and the budget

The city has earmarked about $2.2 million in the 2009-10 budget to repair potholes, or just one percent of the $2 billion total. And people wonder why I get so irritated about the priorities at City Hall.

Potholes, of course, will be big news this week — and next week and the week after and the rest of the year, thanks to this winter’s record snow and the city’s failure to spend $2.6 million (another one percent) on pothole prevention that might have saved us from some of the axle-benders. So, as you bounce up and down on our chuckhole-strewn roads, think about how the bureaucrats at City Hall eliminated money for highway repair but kept money for something called a vertiport, so helicopters can land downtown on the taxpayer’s dime.

After the jump, how the pothole budget works and what could have been trimmed to find money to fix — and prevent — them.

The good news is that Gilbert Aguilar, who oversees the street department, assured me that all the potholes will be fixed, regardless of budget limitations. The city will use top-grade materials, he said, and won’t cut corners. Aguilar was generous and gracious with his time, and seemed genuinely concerned that taxpayers get their money’s worth. And, he said, as bad as this pothole season seems, it isn’t the worse in his 31 years in the street department.

The bad news is that much of this mess could have been avoided, he said. The city cut $2.6 million from the budget for what’s called micro-slurry, which seals the road pavement and prevents water from getting in. Water, which seeps into the road and then freezes, is the prime cause of potholes. Joe Button, a senior research fellow at the Texas Transportation Institute in College Station, says micro-slurry is the key to pothole prevention.

So, no micro-slurry. That leaves us with the $2.2 million for pothole repairs. (There is an item in the budget called pothole repairs, at $340,000, but that is just one kind of pothole. The budget actually covers three kinds of repairs). As always, in trying to decode the budget, I’m hampered by its artificial organization. Street repairs are included in the Economic Vibrancy section, for example, and not Public Safety.

But as near as I can tell, the budget numbers for potholes, even at $2.2 million, aren’t very real. The cost of asphalt has risen substantially in the past several years, said Button, yet the budget for pothole repairs seems to be about the same over that period. I honestly can’t figure out why that would be.

Which leaves us with the $4.8 million question. Where do we find the money to restore micro-slurry and come up with a meaningful budget number for potholes? Because, if we’re going to find the money to fix potholes this year, the money will have to come from somewhere else. Here are a few thoughts, and all I did was go through the Economic Vibrancy section. You can find your own by accessing the 2009-10 budget here. I included the page numbers for the budget PDF in the $5 million of cuts I identified.

• The vertiport (page 85, Economic Vibrancy), which will cost the city almost one-quarter of a million dollars to operate. How many of us know that the city operates a helicopter landing pad downtown?

• Some $1.25 million for the Trinity River Corridor project (page 81, Economic Vibrancy). It’s not getting built, and that’s got nothing to do with my feelings about the project one way or the other. There is no money, so why are we planning as if there is?

• About one-half million dollars for international business development (page 35, Economic Vibrancy). What’s the point of bringing visitors here to pitch them on how wonderful Dallas is when the roads are nothing but potholes?

• Some $3 million more by using one of Mayor Park Cities’ favorite tools — privatization. Let’s sell Dallas Executive Airport (what used to be called Redbird) and the Farmers’ Market. If it’s good enough for the zoo, why not for Redbird (page 19, Economic Vibrancy) and the Farmers’ Market (page 19, Economic Vibrancy)?


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