City manager Tom Bonfield's street-paving roadshow made its way to the InterNeighborhood Council meeting last night, where delegates seemed receptive to the logic of a $20 million issue for street paving bonds this fall -- though concerns over funding priorities and on traffic calming/road safety came up from more than one direction.
Still, Bonfield offered delegates a stark reality of Durham's road conditions, one of the more complained-about features on the Bull City, and one that City Councilman Mike Woodard said started in the 1990s when previous City Councils were for a time paving only a dozen or so miles a year even as suburban growth expanded the road network.
All told, Durham's got 680 miles of City-maintained streets, Bonfield pointed out, and with a 20-year expected lifecycle for pavement, that works out to almost 35 miles a year just to keep up on deterioration.
A $20 million bond issue would allow City leaders to catch up once and for all, officials say, assuming voters approve the levy this November.
Of course, it wouldn't be the first time bonds have been used recently for roads. $20 million in 2005 and 2007 general obligation bond funds have been dedicated catching up on street paving, prioritized by a 2007 survey that found one-third of Durham's roads to be in poor or very poor condition.
While half of those streets will have been repaved once current bond money is exhausted, though, that still leaves almost 150 miles of streets in tough conditions. And Bonfield noted that was reflected in last year's citizen survey, which found roads the #1 issue for 64% of Durham voters.
Bonfield also cautioned that delays in handling maintenance translate to more expensive fixes down the road. He singled out Parkwood's Riddle Rd., a thoroughfare built to NCDOT standards in the 70s but where the road had fallen to the point where reconstruction was needed, not just repaving, taking a perhaps $300,000 project over $1 million.
"We've got to get to this backlog soon, because as these roads get to poor or very poor condition, we get to reconstructing them, and we don't want to get there," said Bonfield.
Of course, the City's been down this bond-funded path to roads back in '05 and '07, and Bonfield was straightforward in noting that Durham leaders' hopes that those infusions would put the city back on the path to good roads was overly optimistic.
What got in the way was the Great Recession, Bonfield told the audience, which led a financially-strapped city to be unable to increase its annual operating allocation towards street paving, even as it started deferred maintenance funds in other areas.
It was a point that later led one INC representative to ask whether there was any assurance that such deferrals wouldn't happen again. Bonfield noted that those decisions were always up to Council, but added that the operational dollars for paving were included in his administration's multi-year financial plan, noting that the current Council has been supportive of the track, a point Woodard supported.
"Speaking for all seven of us is tough to do, but as a group we're committed" to the administration's recommended ongoing operating budget allocation for repaving.
Over a multi-year period, the City would work its way towards $5 million in annual street-paving allocations to get back on and stay back on a 20-year schedule.
But Bonfield stressed that while debt wasn't a perfect way to handle street paving, the current recession and easy money made it a logical step:
- Durham remains one of just a few dozen cities with AAA financial ratings from all three major rating agencies, something reaffirmed just yesterday, making it very cost-effective to borrow money right now.
- This summer, when the City bid out its most recent debt issuance, it was able to lock in a 2.79% interest rate -- for twenty years' time. "I've been doing this for 32 years, and I've never seen anything like that," Bonfield said. "If we're going to borrow money, now is the time to do it."
- Even with the bond, Bonfield stressed that the City would remain below the 15% cap on debt service payments as a percentage of operating fund expenses, something that contributes to the debt ratings and sound financial practices.
- Oil prices have dropped and contractors are hungry. "Last time we bid [street repaving] out in 2007, we were competing with a lot of private development" including contractors merrily paving subdivision streets and retail parking lots -- but the recession stopped that. "They are anxious to bid on City work, and we think going forward now, we are going to get a lot more bang for the buck."
In pass issues, bond funds were spread out over multiple years' draw, and in fact the 2007 issue for streets won't be completely expended until next year.
But Bonfield stressed that staff were already working to pull together bid documents in anticipation of a hoped-for voter passage, so as to be able to turn these out for bid almost immediately and to use these funds solely in the 2011 and 2012 paving cycles (March through November).
And the roadwork would be prioritized only by road conditions, not lobbying or activism.
"It's not about which political neighborhood had more clout, and why some neighborhood got it and someone else didn't," Bonfield said, noting that the paving action is based strictly on the independent, outside evaluation of Durham street conditions, even if that means only some streets in a subdivision get repaved in any given year. "We start at the bottom -- the lowest-rated block gets paved and we keep going right up the list."
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INC representatives were asked Tuesday to bring the issues back to their neighborhood association boards and meetings in anticipation of a vote on a resolution of endorsement at October's INC meeting.
Based on the reactions last night, support seems likely -- though several residents voiced concerns over traffic calming needs that some said have been de-prioritized by elected and appointed officials.
"What we're worried about is that smoother streets are going to translate to faster streets in some places and we already have problems with speeding," said Old North Durham's Peter Katz. "It doesn't appear that there's any money out there for traffic calming right now" that isn't spoken for for existing projects, including neckdowns on West Club Boulevard in Watts-Hillandale.
Katz added that a position was cut from the city that was supposed to focus on neighborhood speeding issues and traffic calming.
Bonfield conceded that the administration and Council had cut traffic calming and street light funding a couple of years back; the latter was restored and he hoped to find money for traffic calming, Bonfield said, though he added his skepticism over whether City resources could ever provide what he described as the desiderata described to him, speed enforcement in every neighborhood.
"It's something that Im very familiar with, have been for a long, long time," Bonfield said of speeding complaints. "Sometimes it's a case where the perceptions are not validated, other times they are validated."
He added that apocryphal stories of speeding City-owned garbage trucks rattling pedestrians have garnered attention, but that automated vehicle locator (GPS-style) systems now in place on those vehicles track their locations and can impute speeds, and that the City has a way now to check up on citizen complaints of too-fast trucks when residents complain.
Tom Miller noted his concern that sewer and water infrastructure in Durham is also aging, reminiscing on a past visit by one-time city manager Patrick Baker to INC, where Baker joked that the refresh cycle for Durham's potable and waste water systems resembled that of the Great Pyramids.
Bonfield noted that the city's debt service cap applied only to general obligation bond funds, not the type of utility revenue-driven levies that would be used for water and sewer projects.
"That's the way you look at it, but all of my money comes out of the same bank account," Miller said.
The city manager also noted that the City Council has signed off on a ten-year capital projects plan for water and sewer improvements, including a plan for rate and fee growth over time.
Still, concerns over debt and priorities weighed on several members, as Northgate Park's Mike Shiflett pointed out in noting residents' and the municipality's needs for everything from parks to a new police headquarters. "There's a lot of needs out there," Shiflett said, asking whether the paving issue would crowd out other efforts.
David Harris from Old Farm made a similar point in noting concerns raised over Rolling Hills and affordable housing, pointing to a City memo this summer discussing the lack of available debt headroom for additional housing projects.
But Bonfield noted that that memo focused on additional debt capacity without a tax increase; tax increases bring revenue that allow you to pay for what you borrow and give you more spending room to work with. And the $20m bond issue for streets would bring a three-quarter cent property tax increase in the first year of the issue, translating to about $15.20 additional tax for the owner of a $200,000 home in that year and declining thereafter.
The manager also added that the city's capital improvement plan has been pared down from being a wish-list to contain only items that have a realistic shot of funding. "There's way more needs than there is capacity," Bonfield said.
Tackling narrowed priorities and doing so even as deferred maintenance gets annual operating dollar funding is a way to preserve the ability to borrow for other priorities, he added.