Published March 11th, 2020 at 6:00 AM
Saturday’s balmy weather may have provided a winter respite, but there was no rest for the weary crew from the Kansas City, Missouri, Public Works Department filling potholes in Waldo.
Shovels scraped pavement as workers heaped asphalt into a divot along 74th Street between Madison and Belleview avenues. But one shoveler wearing brown slacks and dress shoes, along with his bright yellow work vest, stood out in the crowd.
Sure enough, it was Mayor Quinton Lucas.
With a mere 14% of city residents expressing satisfaction with street conditions, the lowest ranking in more than five years, Kansas City officials are scrambling to get ahead of a problem that also rankles suburban commuters, who pay a 1% earnings tax to help pay for basic services like road repair.
The city, which recently declared a “state of emergency,” expects to spend more than $1 million as part of a pothole filling blitz this month. As of Tuesday, though, it had yet to fill about 20% of the more than 3,000 potholes reported so far this year.
Can the city ever hope to eradicate potholes? Public Works General Supervisor Michael Coca pondered that question as the mayor and his crew moved a couple blocks east on 74th Street.
Anything’s possible if you throw enough money at the problem, Coca said. In reality, though, that’s unrealistic.
“With the streets, they are aging. You are always going to have potholes,” Coca said. “We’ll be back here. It’s going to happen.”
Public Works has a big job maintaining Kansas City’s 6,000 miles of roadway.
Some mild winters in recent years prompted relatively few pothole complaints to the city. But the wheels fell off with the ice and snow last year, prompting a surge of about 400% to more than 19,000 complaints.
One might suspect that the most pothole complaints would focus on well-known thoroughfares, such as Ward Parkway, Troost Avenue or North Oak Trafficway, or east-west streets like 75th or 39th.
But a Flatland analysis of nearly 24,000 separate entries logged in the last 14 months led to an isolated spot in the southeast part of the city wedged between Lee’s Summit and Grandview near Longview Lake.
From 109th Street, a narrow street heads north, bordered on either side by dense underbrush. About three-quarters of the way down, just before it dead ends, sits the mailbox for 10711 Foreman Road — the address that shows up most frequently in the city’s pothole complaint database.
The answer to why this address shows up so much lies in the fact this is actually a 129-acre parcel that stretches way east to the corner of 109th Street and View High Drive.
Kansas City’s 311 complaint system associates reported potholes with a nearby physical address, so complaints about this particular stretch of road are clumped together in the system as 10711 Foreman. (The address-based system also explains why 414 E. 12th St. is the second most common entry in the 311 data. That’s City Hall, and 311 staff use that as a default if a location is unclear.)
The southern portion of View High heading toward Interstate 470 is like one long rumble strip, with temporary patches illustrating that the city is well aware of this problem stretch of roadway. It’s actually on the list to be resurfaced later this year as part of a much larger project in the vicinity.
View High is a heavily travelled corridor for students heading to and from the Longview campus of Metropolitan Community College.
The terrible condition of the road is such a pain that Longview student Robert Jones said he had just left a class where he and his fellow students discussed making potholes along View High the topic for an essay assignment.
His assessment of the road? “I think it’s crap,” he said.
Asked if he was happy to hear of the city’s plan to resurface the road, Jones said, “When it happens, I will (be). Until then, I just see temporary fixes.”
According to the American Public Works Association (APWA), one explanation for the word “pothole” dates back to England around the 15th and 16th centuries. Teamsters who drove wagons and coaches coined the term, after what was left behind when pottery makers mined the rutted roads for clay.
Still with us in the age of the horseless carriage, these craters can be costly — with AAA estimating pothole repairs cost U.S. drivers approximately $3 billion a year — and dangerous, when motorists swerve to miss them.
The problem isn’t cheap for local governments either.
Kansas City’s Public Works Department spends about $40 million a year on street maintenance and preservation. Yet the department still says that about one-third of Kansas City’s roadways are in poor condition.
Even though Kansas City increased its street preservation budget by roughly 60% this year, Public Works estimates that will cover only about a third of the existing need.
Citizen complaints are just one piece of the puzzle when it comes to taking care of the city’s roadways, said Public Works spokeswoman Maggie Green.
Every three years, she said, the department uses advanced technology to gauge the condition of all 30,000 road segments around the city. Those techniques and other strategies complement feedback from the public, Green said, noting that complaints drove only a fraction of the roughly 100,000 potholes filled last year.
As it turns out, public works is like health care: prevention is the best medicine. Keeping streets in good overall condition keeps potholes from forming in the first place, experts said.
“Deferred maintenance can start communities on a downward path of deteriorating infrastructure and increasingly costly backlogs of required repairs,” according to the APWA’s pothole fact sheet.
The association, which is headquartered in Kansas City, cited estimates that for every $1 spent to keep a road in good condition, it avoids $6 to $14 needed later for reconstruction.
Long term, the Public Works Department is calling for an increase of $10 million a year in street preservation funding until it can rate the overall system as “good.” It now ranks the system as “fair.”
The budget for the fiscal year that begins May 1 proposes flat funding of $17 million for street preservation. The budget also urges the City Council to fund a “pothole czar” championed by Lucas. The position would oversee street maintenance and report to the city manager.
On Saturday, Lucas also said the city must also consider better pay for street crews to compete with better hourly wages in the suburbs.
No matter what the outcome of the mayor’s initiatives, he earned some props from Steve Truebner, who watched from outside his house as Lucas helped fill potholes.
“I think the best leadership is leading by example,” Truebner said, “and that’s exactly what he is out here doing.”
Mike Sherry is senior reporter for Kansas City PBS. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 816.398.4205.