Des Moines director of public works asks the city council to spend the highest amount of its budget each year to help maintain the city’s 2,200 miles of road network and improve its ratings.
From small cracks to tire-sized potholes, director of public works Jonathan Gano said work to maintain Des Moines’ road system is never-ending. And as the pavement ages, road conditions inevitably deteriorate.
While the city has multiple tools for upkeep and maintenance, Gano said, investing in streets before they start to deteriorate can save the city from reaching a point where they need “expensive intervention.”
“It’s one of the few pieces of city services that almost everyone accesses every day,” Gano told city council members at a work session Monday. “It’s something that literally crosses everyone’s mind as soon as they drive down the driveway. We want this experience to be as smooth, safe and reliable for everyone.”
In 2019, the city unlocked new funding — namely the 1-cent sales tax on local options — to take on more projects. The city has increased its annual spending on road rehabilitation improvements to $12 million to $15 million. The investment has raised Des Moines’ Road Condition Index to 60.5 – a number on a 0 to 100 scale that provides a snapshot of a road’s road surface condition – which is on the borderline between “fair” and “good.” That was in the mid 50’s about five years ago.
More:After years of neglect and tight budgets, Des Moines is trying to catch up on road repairs
But Gano said higher annual investment in roads will increase scores and slow road deterioration, according to city forecasts.
Early long-term projections show that if the city invests at the high end — $14 million or more per year — the city could see its projected road quality peak in the 1970s by 2032. If the status quo is maintained, the city would reach a score of 65 in 2028, with a steady decline in the years thereafter.
“At the rate included in the already approved budget (Capital Improvements Program budget), we will be able to keep roadway conditions stable for the foreseeable future,” he said. “Additional investment – and a fairly modest one – is required to achieve an improvement in road conditions.”
The city has already seen a modest improvement from a few years ago, when it allocated less than half of its annual spending on road improvements and prioritized repairs to roads in the worst conditions, Gano said.
For years, following a “worst first” approach, some streets were neglected until it was too late, and during the financial crisis that began in late 2007, money was tight and the city had fewer workers, he said. Some streets in the neighborhood were not treated at all unless the neighbors agreed to pay some of the repair costs.
“As opposed to solving many of life’s toughest problems a city faces, you can solve this by throwing money at it,” Gano said.
The city has contracted with Iowa State University’s Center for Transportation Research and Education to measure road conditions every four years. Cars equipped with lasers and sensors drive the streets of Des Moines to detect cracks, potholes and surface defects. The road defects are organized in a database system and provided with a road condition index value.
Ratings are subjective, Gano said, but in general “fair” roads have some issues that the average driver would notice, like cracks or potholes.
Gano said that more funding earlier in a road’s lifecycle directly impacts its sustainability. The city makes forecasts to calculate how much it should spend on maintaining road conditions.
More:Iowa gets $5 billion in new projects from the Infrastructure Act. Here’s a breakdown
Des Moines has already identified roads it will be working on over the next five years. A major reconstruction project includes a section of Grand Avenue between 44th Street and the Martin Luther King Jr. Parkway. Another is University Avenue between 25th Street and Illinois Street.
According to City Manager Scott Sanders, additional road maintenance funding is one option in a list of competing priorities. He told council members it was up for discussion.
Budget proposals are presented to City Council in February and must be approved and presented to the state by March 31. The fiscal year begins on July 1st.
You can view the city’s upcoming street improvement projects at https://www.dsm.city/departments/public_works-division/streets/20_year_street_maintenance_forecast.php
You can also report potholes to the city at https://www.dsm.city/mydsmmobile/index.php
Virginia Barreda is the City of Des Moines reporter for the Register. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @vbarreda2.