The lousy state of D.C.’s streets explained in 14 slides and two charts

On Tuesday, D.C. Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) invited city transportation officials to fill her in on the state of the city’s streets. After a long, cold winter, complaints about the pocked condition of city roadways have risen even higher than usual, Cheh said, and the officials needed to provide answers.

Here are a few, courtesy of a District Department of Transportation slide show.

The District has more than 4,000 lane-miles of roadway. (A lane-mile is a mile of pavement one lane wide; i.e., a mile-long stretch of four-lane street equals four lane-miles.) About half are eligible to be maintained with federal funds; the other half are not.


DDOT rates the condition of every lane-mile of pavement using this gizmo.


The pavement is rated according to a “Pavement Condition Index” from zero to 100, ranging from the truly awful …


… to the merely subpar …


… to the downright fabulous.


According to the city’s own statistics, about one-quarter of the pavement in the city is in “poor,” “very poor” or “failed” condition. Roughly another quarter is in “fair” condition, with about half in “good” or “excellent” condition.


Pavement eligible for federal maintenance funds, not surprisingly, tends to be in better condition.


While local lane-miles account for 53 percent of the city total, they only get one-half to two-thirds the funding that federal lane-miles do.


So who decided which streets get fixed? DDOT says it strives for a “fact-based allocation of funds” based on the Pavement Condition Index, but also the amount of traffic involved, “community input” and “unforeseen emergencies.” The upshot, the agency said, is that “non-critical” repairs can be put off “for months or potentially years.”


Streets can undergo various types of repair, ranging from a full reconstruction, where the roadway is rebuilt from the ground up, to a less-intensive resurfacing …


… to a still-less-intensive “slurry seal” …


… to a basic “crack seal.”


The more intensive the repair, the more it costs.


Only a small fraction of the city’s street and roads are repaved in a given year. In 2014, less than 50 lane-miles of pavement were paved or patched (not including filled potholes).


So what is to be done about the city’s lousy streets?

Every year, DDOT touts its “Potholepalooza” pothole-filling blitz, but those efforts can’t turn a fair-rated road into an excellent-rated one. Only more aggressive and more expensive paving projects can do that. But only a tiny percentage of the transportation department’s budget is spent on paving projects on streets not eligible for federal highway funds. This fiscal year, for instance, only $6.7 million of the $148 million DDOT capital budget is set aside for local street paving; compare that to the $63 million earmarked for the streetcar program or even the $8.6 million budgeted for streetlight management.


Now, $73 million is earmarked in federal-aid funds for major street repair projects on federal roadways — but, again, not all of that is purely for paving, and that’s only a fraction of the overall $253 million total federal-aid budget.


Both Acting DDOT Director Matthew Brown and Chief Engineer Muhammed Khalid acknowledged Tuesday that more money would help improve the condition of local roads, and Cheh actually boosted the local funding levels to $8.8 million — from $612,000 per ward to $1 million — for the next fiscal year, which starts Oct. 1. Again, some perspective: That’s still only 4.4 percent of DDOT’s $199 million capital budget. Meanwhile, the amount budgeted for major repairs on federal-eligible roadways is going down to $56 million — a nominal cut of 23 percent.

The upshot: With big-ticket projects like the streetcar system and the rebuilding of the Frederick Douglass Bridge sucking up dollars, basic street paving is pretty far down the list of priorities for DDOT’s funding and attention. Particularly if you live on a local street, your best bets are to be a squeaky wheel or hope your pavement is in such bad shape the city can’t ignore it any more.

Mike DeBonis covers local politics and government for The Washington Post. He also writes a blog and a political analysis column that runs on Fridays.
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