A rocky road: Funding Salt Lake street repairs after a recession

Published: Saturday, June 22 2013 3:20 p.m. MDT

The Salt Lake City Council overrode Becker's veto Friday to add a 13.8 percent property tax hike to that budget, adding $5 million for capital improvement projects. How much of that influx will be dedicated to roads could be determined in a July 9 City Council meeting, which is slated as an opportunity to prioritize capital needs. The meeting will include a public hearing.

The remaining $3 million in revenue from the tax increase will go to needs within the general fund.

Through much of Becker's tenure, roughly 50 to 60 percent of capital improvement project funding has gone to road repairs annually, according to a spokesman for the mayor's office. That estimate does not include road projects covered by bond funding, basic road treatments, signal work or striping work.

Eric Shaw, director of the Community and Economic Development Department, came to Salt Lake City seven months ago after working in Louisiana, and has found plenty his new department should be proud of.

By comparison to the rest of the country, Utah's capital city has adjusted through lean years. One example, he said, is that departments have learned to coordinate road work with utility repairs and fiber-optic installation, minimizing cost and impact.

The department is also learning to leverage funds to get the most for its money, Shaw said, using the Chicago Infrastructure Trust as a possible example.

With limited resources, the focus has been placed as much as possible on high-traffic roads, which has left some residential streets to erode and crumble, he said.

"I think right now that on the highly traveled roads, people are seeing the glaring needs associated with that, and we understand those needs," Shaw said. "We've been trying to figure out the best investment strategies for long-term work, and in the interim we've been trying to figure out solutions."

Jeff Snelling, deputy city engineer, said the city has managed to preserve most of its programs, which include curb and gutter repairs, though at a reduced scale and with fewer funds. Like all city departments, Snelling said he is constantly looking for ways to increase efficiency.

"The city is looking at all possible avenues for (road repairs), and addressing it," Snelling said. "It isn't something that's being ignored, it's something that's on our front burner that we're trying to deal with in the best way possible, with limited resources."

In the next year, 1300 South near the freeway onramp and 1700 South between State Street and 700 East could be likely candidates for repairs, Snelling said.

Opposite sides

Since introducing his recommended budget, Becker has been adamant that a lean, no-frills approach would get the city through one more year, allowing time for careful planning before large-scale road rehabilitation begins. He also wonders whether the city has the manpower to plan and carry out new projects in light of reduced staffing.

A majority contingency from the council disagreed, insisting that without immediate action, the city and its taxpayers will face higher costs down the road.

"We have come to the conclusion we cannot continue to delay fixing our aging streets," Council Chairman Kyle LaMalfa said following Friday's override vote. "We are not proposing lavish expenditures. … Cheaper repairs now mean less costly replacement later."

Shaw said that while everyone at City Hall feels "a sense of urgency," its simply a matter of two different approaches.

"It's not a matter of who's right," Shaw said. "All of us live in the same city, all of us understand this, all of us are working from similar data."

Snelling and Shaw were unsure what a sudden influx of revenue will mean for their departments, and will be waiting to see what instructions come with their piece of the pie.

"I don't think we know, that's something that will be fleshed out," Snelling said. "We're waiting for guidance from our political leaders."

Email: mromero@deseretnews.com

Twitter: McKenzieRomero

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