Defining Adequacy Down

By Jeff Gudman

In 2002 to 2004 the City Council after long, careful deliberation and community input decided the roads of Lake Oswego were inadequately maintained. The result? The establishment of a street maintenance fee in 2004 that was added to the now monthly utility bill for surface water, wastewater and water.

Why was getting our roads up to standard important? When roads are up to standard, quality of life increases and ongoing maintenance expenses decrease. Maintaining our roads means using an integrated one-dig approach, so when appropriate, roadwork includes sidewalks, pathways, ADA ramps, catch basins, water lines, sewer lines and surface water run-off.

How has the City been doing on road maintenance? Pretty well, up to now. Since 2002, the City has been tracking its progress through a measure called the Pavement Condition Index (PCI). The PCI is a metric between 1 and 100 of the overall average road status. Thanks to continual focus, not only has the PCI decline since 2002 been slowed, it has been reversed. The PCI does not tell the whole story and there is nuance in the details.

In 2002, Lake Oswego’s PCI was 75; it declined to 66 in 2013 before improving to 68 in 2016, 69 in 2019 and back to 75 in 2022. After spending tens of millions of dollars, the City made it back to where it was when Council initially concluded roads were inadequately maintained. Progress was achieved by a sustained multi-year focus. At the budgeted/projected investment level over the next five years, the PCI is expected to decline to its lowest level in 25 years. It will be well below what the Council deemed inadequate 20 years ago.

The City categorizes roads as Good, Fair, Poor (roads are near the end of their life and often exhibit major forms of distress such as potholes, extensive alligator cracking, and/or pavement depressions) and Very Poor (pavements are at the end of their useful lives and have major distresses, often indicating failure of the subbase). Deferred road maintenance increases as more streets fall into the Poor and Very Poor categories. There is a projected 50% increase in the miles of road in the Poor and Very Poor category. That is almost one quarter of all our roads. To paraphrase the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan….this is defining adequacy down.

It is a financial and a quality-of-life mistake to reduce funding for existing “road” infrastructure and transferring it to new pathways infrastructure. The result is a waste of millions of dollars spent in the last 20 years. Spending money on something new instead of maintain/enhancing existing infrastructure is a lot more “fun.”

One of, if not the most, items residents notice about our city is our roads. On a daily basis more people use our roads than any other city asset. Although surveys of residents showed a desire for more pathways, residents were not asked are you in favor of new pathways ahead of letting roads deteriorate. Yet the recently approved increase in the street maintenance fee dedicated to new pathways will be at the expense of letting roads deteriorate. Classic if we do this, what don’t we do. The increase in the street maintenance fee is not even dedicated to maintaining existing pathways of which there is a multi-million dollar backlog. When people said they wanted new pathways, it is likely not at the expense of watching roads and existing pathways deteriorate. Yet that is exactly the road the Council is taking.

There is nuance in looking at infrastructure. A sustained long-term focus on roads matters. Otherwise, progress made is for naught. Can the City maintain a narrow and deep focus over an extended period of time? To have a first-rate quality of life and infrastructure, the City must do so.

By using a focused, integrated one-dig approach, Lake Oswego has made great progress in bringing the quality of roads back to where they were 20 years ago, when the street maintenance fee was initiated. Twenty years ago, roads were determined to be inadequate. The core principles making progress possible: Staying focused, because when it comes to infrastructure, narrow and deep is more effective than wide and thin spending; maintaining/improving existing infrastructure before adding new infrastructure; and understanding there is nuance and trade-offs (if we do this, what don’t we do?).

One thing is certain, by deferring maintaining roads at the current level, it will be far more expensive than what will be spent on new pathways which will also incur ongoing maintenance costs. “If we do this, what don’t we do.”

Do not define adequacy down.

Elected officials can’t hide from residents the cost of its wishes. Trying to do so is an attempt to produce the end without identifying the means to an end.

Jeff Gudman
4088 Orchard Way
He can be reached at JGudman7150@msn.com
Jeff Gudman served as a Lake Oswego city councilor from 2011-2018.