The Arlington County Board is likely to approve increasing the amount of tax dollars spent each year on paving and maintaining roads, though that increase falls short of what’s needed to substantially improve the overall condition of streets here.
The county’s street paving program is a relatively small part of the 10-year, $2.45 billion Capital Improvement Plan elected officials are expected to approve Saturday. The plan, which is updated every two years, like a proposed Columbia Pike streetcar and a new year-round homeless services center.
Arlington County maintains 974 miles of streets, nearly two-thirds of them in neighborhoods.
Pavement conditions are assessed based on ride quality, cracking, potholes and other factors and given a rating from 1 to 100. In general, a rating of 90 to 100 is excellent; 70 to 90 is good; 60 to 70 is fair; and below 60 is poor.
Arlington’s average is 69, and more than one-third of the streets would be considered poor.
As streets age, they deteriorate more quickly. In order to keep Arlington’s streets from deteriorating to the point where they would need to be rebuilt, the county needs to follow a 15-year paving cycle.
That means the county should pave 72 miles each year. That compares to 50 miles paved this fiscal year, and only 36 miles paved last year. On average, the county has paved 46 miles each year for the last 17 years — though the actual number each year has fluctuated drastically in some instances.
In late June, Harry Wang — chief of the county’s Department of Environmental Services Bureau of Water, Sewer and Streets — told elected officials that in order to raise the overall condition of Arlington’s streets to 85 over the next decade, the county needs to pave an additional 37 miles per year. (See Wang's complete presentation here.)
In all, Wang said, the county needs to spend $15.4 million annually on street paving to keep Arlington’s streets comfortably in the “good” category.
County elected officials seemed caught off guard when they heard this. The financial forecast in the proposed Capital Improvement Plan budgets less than half of that amount for the next fiscal year and gradually increases funding to about $13.5 million in fiscal year 2022.
This week, top county officials indicated that the less-than-recommended amount of money going to street paving was almost certain to remain the same when the board approves the Capital Improvement Plan.
The lower amount does take inflation into account, though, and will allow the county to average paving about 72 miles per year — and should even raise the overall condition of county-maintained streets slightly.
“Our analysis of paving and where we want to be has evolved over the past few months,” Finance Director Michelle Cowan told Patch. “No matter what, it’s a big increase, and it brings us a lot closer to where we want to be.”
Arlington also is spending the next three to six months looking at how other jurisdictions approach street paving, she said.
Plans to Ramp Up
Board member Chris Zimmerman expressed concern that talk of paving cycles and numerical grades of street conditions was more than the average resident cared about. Condition is subjective, he said, where one person may see a few cracks in a stretch of pavement and think that’s acceptable, and others, most definitely, do not.
Chairwoman Mary Hynes talked about a street that had deteriorated to the point of being a “washboard,” which had neighbors complaining — and then predicted those same people would complain once the street was paved because it would allow cars to speed through their neighborhood.
County Manager Barbara Donnellan looked at a photo of a street that had a zero grade and remarked, “That looks like Fairfax.”
She did acknowledge the county’s lack of attention to the overall quality of its streets in the past, saying, “Some of this stuff has been left for years.”
Aside from the conversation that followed Wang’s presentation in June, county officials have decided amongst themselves how to spend public money on paving. Similar to the budget process, .
Gradually increasing funding will allow the county to learn the ins and outs of managing an expanded program over the next two years and then to apply those lessons the next time the board updates the Capital Improvement Plan, Hynes said.
“We had one conversation with the manager, and she said, ‘We’re going from zero to 60. Let’s ramp up,’ ” she said. “Let’s practice what it looks like.”
Wang said the numbers forecast in the Capital Improvement Plan were put together by the Finance Department, not the section of the county that’s actually responsible for paving and maintaining the streets.
“It's an OK approach, because at least we're doing better than the last 10 years. In the last 10 years we were lacking, and now we're doing in the right amount. For the future, if you do 72 (miles) per year, that will be pretty good,” he said.
Wang has been practicing his trade for about 20 years and came to Arlington about 18 months ago from the city of North Las Vegas. He believes he was able to get the county board to look at the issue of street paving and maintenance from his perspective.
“Whenever we show the street conditions with the (grade), then it's more obvious to the citizens. If we do nothing, more will come down from the upper group to the lower group, and you'll see more complaints,” he said. “And the reason we get more complaints are those, the ones under 60. And we need to get rid of those. And that means more money.”