SALT LAKE CITY — Matt Cassel looked up and down a section of Kensington Avenue at a spiderweb of cracks spanning across the asphalt.
The Salt Lake City engineer called it "alligatoring" because of its resemblance to the skin of the predatory reptile.
It's a sign, Cassel said, that the soil beneath the road has failed.
"And there's nothing you can do," he said. "No asphalt can help this road anymore."
That's obviously not good news — not for Salt Lake City motorists (at least those who don't like dodging potholes), and not for the city's budget.
Because once a road fails, it's much more expensive to tear up and replace, Cassel said.
The cost difference? It takes about $9,000 per lane mile to lay a slurry seal — the least expensive way to preserve the life of a road — on a seven-year basis. But if roads aren't maintained regularly, an overlay costs $280,000. Even worse, if a road has to be completely reconstructed, the price tag hits an estimated $500,000 per lane mile, Cassel said.
"If you don't stay on it, the cost doesn't slowly get larger," Cassel said. "It just almost instantaneously gets huge."
Large, capital road projects — those that need costly, complete reconstruction — are what Salt Lake City voters would fund if they approve a major bond on the Nov. 6 ballot.
The $87 million bond could result in an estimated property tax hike of up to $5 a year for the average Salt Lake City household valued at $339,000 because two other bonds are retiring next year.
The total burden of the bond, if passed, would be about $48 a year on the average Salt Lake City home, according to city estimates. If the bond doesn't pass, property taxes would lower if no bond replaces the two slated to retire.
The Salt Lake City Council voted earlier this year to place the bond question on the 2018 ballot to fill what City Council Chairwoman Erin Mendenhall called "an enormous pothole of financial need."
Two-thirds of Salt Lake City's roads are in poor or worse condition, with many needing to be completely rebuilt, according to a recent study the city commissioned last year.
Over the past several decades, city officials haven't been spending what is necessary to preserve and maintain city-owned streets — something Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski sought to correct in her most recent budget proposal.
The mayor's plan was first presented in her 2018 State of the City address, where she pitched using the $87 million bond alongside a $33 million sales tax hike to put Salt Lake City's road budget on a more sustainable trajectory.
While a portion of a 0.5 percent sales tax hike, which the City Council voted to activate, is slated to help boost funding for ongoing street maintenance like resurfacing or pothole repair, the $87 million bond revenue can only be used for street reconstruction projects — which require large sums of money upfront.
Ever since the City Council voted to place the bond on the ballot, city staff are now bound by law to not actively advocate in favor of the bond. But they can provide information to help inform voters.
If Salt Lake City did all the projects needed to bring its roads to fair condition, it would cost an estimated $220 million, Cassel said.
So obviously $87 million won't fix everything, he said, but it would fund a handful of large, expensive projects and "focus on the streets that are in the worst shape" to put Salt Lake City's road maintenance budget on a better path.
"The $87 million would help us immensely just to change that curve, which is dropping down as the roads get worse," Cassel said.
Based on a recommendation from the City Council, the $87 million would be applied in an 80/20 split, with 80 percent of funding going to major, high-use streets that would require reconstruction, while 20 percent would go to local, neighborhood streets. That means about $69.6 million would be allocated to major road projects, and $17.4 million would go to local streets, according to city staff.
Among the roads on the top of the list for high-priority reconstruction is a segment of 2700 South, fraught with crumbling patches and cracks Cassel said he expects will be potholes this winter.
"You're always going to have that worst street — and 2700 South is ours," Cassel said. "It's the nature of the beast."
Cassel said city engineers have already begun designing the new 2700 South, "just hoping that we can get it done."
"It's in really bad shape," he said. "It's just falling apart … It's so bumpy and such a poor ride. You bounce all over the place."
In anticipation of ballots hitting voter mailboxes, Salt Lake City staffers sent out a large voter information pamphlet to notify Salt Lake City residents of the special bond election.
The pamphlet included arguments for and against the bond, including a joint statement from the Salt Lake City Council and mayor.
"Salt Lake City is poised for continued prosperity, making now the time to take advantage of a rare and affordable funding option," the statement said. "This bond will invest in the street network — the backbone of our local economy — by reconstructing some of the worst roads."
The statement adds: "Not approving the bond would lower taxes on an average-value home by about $41 a year, but our roads would continue to their decline, and cost even more in future years to rebuild. The upfront costs of street reconstruction projects are so high, the city can't save up enough to address them without cutting other critical services."
But in an argument against the bond submitted to the city and included in the voter information pamphlet, city resident Frank Langheinrich called the bond proposal "shortsighted" and said it would "cost more in the long run as a haphazard, small project approach."
"This bond will merely lead to many more over the next decade as the city will repeatedly come back for additional piecemeal funding," Langheinrich said.
"While this bond will increase our general obligation debt by 64 percent, it is still insufficient to fund the needs claimed by the city," Langheinrich added, arguing that it would be more responsible to sideline less important budget items and fund the road projects over time.3 comments on this story
In contrast, city officials acknowledge the funding won't address every need citywide, it will address about 20 percent of the most critical — "a significant improvement drivers all over the city would benefit from."
Overall, Cassel said it's up to voters to decide where they land on the $87 million bond. While it won't fix everything, it will help get the city on a better track and hopefully spend less in the long run.
"It would get us a real good start in the right direction," he said.