On Wednesday, Mayor Luke Ravenstahl held a news conference in Banksville announcing an "aggressive pothole-patching effort".
He said the city will have "more employees behind pothole patching" in 2009, and touted a new city website, www.pittsburghpothole.com.
The venue could not have been more appropriate. The neighborhood was situated on a steeply tilted rolling plain, facing south, away from town. Private repair crews were working all throughout the vicinity to attend to situations. A detour was necessary even to approach the site of the news conference.
Ravenstahl said that "all the potholes" in the area would be patched within a week's time. 50 public workers would attend to the fix-up over a 24-hour span. He noted that the effort fits into his 11-point Blueprint for Renaissance III through #9: clean and safe streets.
According to the mayor, the city would "start out with cold patch now", and when the "weather breaks" city workers would return to apply "a more durable patch". He also acknowledged that "there are areas we'll patch two or three times in the spring."
Ravenstahl quoted President Obama directing that the recently passed federal stimulus bill should encourage projects like "grinding asphalt, paving roads and filling potholes." The mayor said that "I'll make that commitment today," that a significant portion of the stimulus would go towards "infrastructure".
It's not in my notes, but the Post-Gazette reminds us:
Mr. Ravenstahl said this year's bumper crop of potholes is partly an outgrowth of the city's more vigorous plowing and salting of streets. "Unfortunately, we're paying now for our aggressiveness." (P-G, Jon Schmitz)
Before the news conference, we met a Banksville resident named Caryn. As Caryn came down her driveway, I asked if she was coming to inquire about potholes. She said yes she was -- but also, "there used to be a mirror" at the intersection at which the news conference was being held.
The two roads came at each other at an acute angle and from different sea levels, so the mirror was useful for checking for oncoming traffic. About six months ago, said Caryn, the mirror cracked, then broke, then disappeared.
While I was holding a sidebar with Art Victor and Wendy Urbanac, Caryn held her own conversation with Mayor Ravenstahl. We rendezvoused later at the foot of her driveway, and she looked quite pleased.
"He said he's going to look into it," she said.
We stayed to chat about potholes for awhile, and about the "bituminous coal" the city uses for patching, and about asphalt, and finally the concrete Caryn says they use in upstate New York. Mayoral press secretary Joanna Doven came over to join us for some of it.
"What I want to know," Caryn from Banksville said, " is why can't they fix it right the first time?'
"You should ask Kaz," Doven suggested to us, speaking of public works Director of Operations Rob Kaczorowski. It appeared that he was just leaving, but we arranged that I would get in touch with him.
"If we had an unlimited budget, concrete would be a great way to go," Kaczorowski acknowledged. However, he said it costs at least "four times as much."
Regarding the types of asphalt we use for paving and the types of patch we use for potholes, those materials "go out for bid every season -- bids go out and we get what they put out". The material we use for coal patch is a "high-grade" type that meets "state specifications."
Patch actually works better for deeper potholes, Kaczorowski tells us, than for very shallow ones. When the patch goes deep enough it can harden and stabilize appropriately. For inch to inch and a half deep potholes -- "they're annoying" Kaz acknowledges -- there's not much to be done in the way of repairing them.
We asked if the problem was our asphalt -- is it a lower quality product, or does it break down into potholes too easily. "There are other mixes and materials out there. We got a test sack from the Controller's office," Kaczorowski said as an example.
The Department of Public Works utilized the contents of Michael Lamb's "test sack" near the top of McArdle Roadway. Since it was a limited quantity, it can now be viewed supplemented with a jumble of regular old stuff.
We asked Kaz about the likelihood of switching over to the newer stuff, if it is more durable and results in less repairs in the long run. "We're looking at that -- but it's so costly!" he winced.
I wasn't surprised that a higher-quality asphalt mixture would be more costly up-front -- but my thinking was that if the City Controller recommended it to the Department of Public Works after a Street Maintenance performance audit, he must have done so with a conviction that fewer and less costly repairs make it a superior choice in the long run.
There was no avoiding it -- I'd have to look at the audit.
In so doing, I didn't find anything about a "test sack" of asphalt -- but I did learn about Superpave, the PennDOT-approved contract for asphalt with only certain specifications, which the Commonwealth encourages the City to "piggyback" upon. I could find no recommendations as to whether or not higher-quality asphalt would be more cost-effective if we forwent or sought to alter the state contract. Yet the audit arrived with a test sack of something.
I also discovered that although sealing the cracks in asphalt prevents the costly eruption of potholes down the road, according to DPW, "crack sealing has not been recently used because we have been putting all of our money into repaving." The audit recommends a crack-sealing program.
I further discovered that despite new policies and procedures including a formal annual repaving "list" of streets based on quantitative, needs-based "scores", half of the streets which actually got repaved turned out not even to have appeared on the predetermined list.
So when it comes to using materials that are more cost-efficient in the long run -- when it comes to ensuring that small problems are not permitted to erupt into big ones -- and when it comes to actually submitting to the scientific methodologies which we say we have instituted, it turns out that Pittsburgh is not getting it done.
It seems we prefer to confront those problems which erupt before us "aggressively", and put off doing newly suggested things -- things which may appear costly at first, or seem like royal pains-in-the-ass, but are likely to result in a more manageable world for everyone.
This question reminds me precisely of our first interview with then-Prothonotary Michael Lamb almost two years ago. We return to that interview already in progress.
The controller's office and many city departments are not even using the same accounting software, he says, and that makes it hard to function.
He has encouraged city government to make some upgrades, but, he says, "I'm dealing with that resistance."
Is "that resistance" what he would call a "Pittsburgh thing"?
"I don't want to say it's not disciplined," he begins, "but there's a failure to stay ahead on the tech curve." He describes a city that reacts to stress by falling back on what is familiar -- even if it fails to address the actual problem. (Comet, 4/24/07)
Photo #2, "Luke and Rob", Jeff Swensen, NYT