A resident wrote to the Department of Public Works that he’s lived in a Third World country that has better roads than Amherst.
Everyone notices the number of bone-jarring potholes on our roads. Many of us swerve to avoid them, and some of us damage our cars by driving too fast over them. Why are the roads so bad in a town with such high taxes?
Many towns have a bumper crop of potholes this year. The rainy weather in 2018 raised the water table, and the freezing-and-thawing over the winter has caused the problem.
The short-term solution is to fill the potholes with asphalt. But that takes time, and the price of asphalt has gone up while the amount of money the state provides for road repair hasn’t, said Guilford Mooring, the superintendent of public works.
The long-term solution is to rebuild, repave and maintain the roads, and Amherst has been putting off this expense for years. Now there’s a backlog of more than $16 million in needed work on roads and sidewalks, Mooring said.
The problem is so severe that several members of the Town Council believe that road and sidewalk repair should be viewed as one of Amherst’s major infrastructure needs, along with a new school, new fire station, Jones Library renovations and a new public works building.
“We want you to know that as we consider the goals of the Council, the conditions of our roads and sidewalks is among those on the list,” wrote President Lynn Griesemer to a resident. “Many residents consider roads and sidewalks as a major capital project – something we will consider as we move forward.”
So how did Amherst wind up with such an enormous backlog of road and sidewalk repairs? Alisa Brewer, who was on the Select Board before she became an at-large member of the Town Council, cited several factors.
“We are told over and over we can’t spend/start bids/start work until late in season, until we know what (state) money was coming,” she wrote in an email response. “Some years, we fronted some money but mostly we were told we had to wait. Who were we to argue with financial and public works professionals?”
Brewer also cited the problem of the state not giving multi-year funding commitments. “Professional staff haven’t figured out a creative solution,” she wrote.
Even if the $16 million magically appeared, it would take years for the town to get roads where they ideally should be. Town Manager Paul Bockelman has been increasing the amount of money in the budgets for roads and sidewalks, and he is recommending $1 million in town money, plus $841,883 in state money, for road repair in the fiscal year starting July 1.
Mooring said he believes that the cost of road repair should be paid as much as possible by the people who use them, as water and sewer costs are. But many people believe that public infrastructure is a common good that should be funded by all taxpayers.
The town receives money for road repair from the state gasoline tax, but that tax rate hasn’t gone up in years. The town receives motor vehicle excise tax revenue, but a lot of vehicles used in Amherst aren’t registered here. Many Amherst residents drive hybrid vehicles, which don’t pay as much gas tax, or electric vehicles, which don’t pay any, and although they save on greenhouse gas emissions, they produce less revenue for road repair, Mooring says.
This year, the priorities for Public Works are Main Street from Boltwood Avenue to Dickinson Street (road and sidewalks); East Pleasant Street from Strong to Eastman, including new bus pull-offs and sidewalks at Village Park; and West Bay Road, including a sidewalk and crosswalk. The priorities for the fiscal year starting July 1 have not been agreed to.
When it comes to sidewalks, the priority has been to repair existing sidewalks rather than build new ones. Bockelman is increasing the budget for sidewalks from $80,000 this year to $200,000 next year, so expect more activity after July 1. Some downtown sidewalks get such heavy pedestrian use that are becoming hazardous.
The Joint Capital Planning Committee has created a process for considering citizen requests, and residents who live on Pine Street and the East Pleasant Street area have lobbied for new sidewalks.
“Decisions on specific sidewalks and roads to be repaired continue to be the province of Public Works,” said Mandi Jo Hanneke, the Town Council vice president. “The Council over the past four months has been quite interested in how those decisions are made, so I suspect that part of the Council’s goals will be to bring that process into more transparency.”
The joint capital committee makes an annual recommendation on which projects to fund, she said. That recommendation goes to Bockelman, who takes it into consideration prior to submitting to the Council the Capital Improvement Plan and the annual budget. The Council can set goals for the Town Manager, and it adopts the budget and the capital improvement plan. This allows the Council some ability to control spending on capital items, including roads and sidewalks, Hanneke said.
Town officials have to be aware of potential liability from crumbling sidewalks and potholes. People sometimes trip on sidewalks and file claims with the town’s insurance company. If a vehicle sustains damage because of a pothole that has been reported but not fixed, the town can be liable for the repair costs.
Everyone has an idea about the worst pothole in town, and it takes the Public Works crews time to get to all of them. The roads with the heaviest use get the top priority.
This results in a lot of unhappy motorists this time of year. “It’s just one of those things you bang your head against a wall over,” said Mooring.
It is frustrating driving over a pothole or stepping in a crack in a downtown sidewalk. But town officials are aware of the problem and say they are doing their best to address it.
“We have done so much with so little for so long,” Mooring says. “Still, we get blamed for everything. People think we’re making their lives miserable. But nothing we do here is personal.”
Photo by Bernie Kubiak