Pothole Pig has job security, street crews don’t

POTHOLE PIG NOW HAS A NAME.

Tacoma Weekly’s famed Pothole Pig now has a name, Perceval. Perceval is one of King Arthur's legendary Knights of the Round Table. Perceval is the earliest recorded account of what has gone down in legend as the “Quest for the Holy Grail,” a mythical chalice used by Jesus during Last Supper that is believed to have special powers. Our Perceval Pig, however, is on an endless quest for the “perfect pothole” and runs into many along his adventures through Tacoma.

The Tacoma Weekly’s famed Perceval the Pothole Pig might have to outsource some of its work to other members of its drift in the coming years. The demand for spotlighting potholes around Tacoma will certainly pace the workload of a single swine. “It has taken a lot of time to get this bad; it’s not going to get fixed all at once,” Public Works Director Dick McKinley said. “The key for us is to just do what we can.” Tacoma’s Public Works spending will be cut by 45 percent under the proposed budget plan for 2013-14, from $231 million under the current budget to about $104 million. The cuts translate to the loss of about 80 positions from the department that once had a payroll of some 250 people. About 71 of those job losses will come in the Public Works division, which is tasked with maintaining streets, and from an across-the-board cut of every city department to cover Tacoma’s projected $63 million shortfall as well as a “structural deficit” of another $16 million in the street repair fund that had been created through the use of one-time funds for ongoing work under former city manager Eric Anderson. Had the internal street deficit been rolled into the city’s total general fund budget shortfall, the across-the-board cuts would have been closer to 18 percent. The proposed streets fund budget totals $47.6 million of which about $18 million will come from the general fund. That level of spending is about $30 million less than current levels of street work spending that is already falling well behind the need.

“We really are one of the worst in Washington,” McKinley said. Roads are graded on a scale of one-to-100 points, with 100 being the top tier of a brand new roadway. The municipal average in Washington is a rating of about 70. Tacoma’s stock of roadway has a collective rating of 42, falling into the poor-to-fair range. Roads have been getting worse in the City of Destiny for more than a generation. “There are roads that we just don’t patch because there really isn’t much of the pavement left,” McKinley said. The decaying streets around Tacoma are well known to drivers, and they might just become legendary. City estimates figure Tacoma streets need $800 million in repairs that don’t include sidewalk and utility repair needs. Crews have spent close to $4 million a year in recent years on roadwork. Crews had been chip sealing about 125 blocks of street, but that will do just 80 blocks under the budget proposal. The 67,000 potholes repaired in just the last year will drop to about 3,000 as the city shifts strategies. Even those holes will largely be repaired only after citizen complaints rather than proactive patching. Instead of continuing the practice of cold-patching potholes found on Tacoma’s network of 800 lane miles of arterial road within five days of being reported, McKinley wants to hot patch them instead as a way to avoid return visits. “Cold patching is very frustrating because it is very expensive as well as it doesn’t often work,” he said.

The rub is that hot patching might fix the holes but can only be done in warm and dry weather. That means potholes created in the fall and winter would have to wait until the spring to be fixed. It also means a community relations blitz to get drivers to steer well clear of potholes so that the potholes don’t get worse before crews can get to them. And there will be fewer city workers patching what potholes nature creates under the proposed but. The Public Works Department currently has 10 street maintenance crew leaders, 25 street maintenance workers, seven street equipment operators and three heavy equipment operators. The proposed budget will strip that down to four street maintenance crew leaders, 13 street maintenance workers, five street equipment operators and one heavy equipment operators. So more potholes are likely as the department shifts tactics as well as cuts crews. Anyone thinking about cashing in on the rise of potholes by filing claims against the city under RCW 4.96 has a tough road ahead on that journey. The math just doesn’t work out. City records show that during the last five years, almost 700 people filed claims against the city for damage to their vehicles or personal injuries linked to allegations of poor road conditions. Of the $2.8 million in road-related claims by 696 people filed against the city during that time, Tacoma has only paid out $102, 264.81, according to records. That’s only 3.6 percent of the total claims filed. Drivers who damage their car’s tires, rims or alignment by hitting a pothole can file claims against the city for the cost of the repairs since the city has a legal obligation to repair the streets. Claimants, however, bear the burden of proof that the city is at fault for the damages. That means that the person filing the claim has to prove the city knew about the pothole and did nothing to fix it. The "prior knowledge" policy means the first few drivers to damage their cars after hitting a pothole might be out of luck when it comes to claims for damages against the city since crews might not have known about the pothole. Only after crews are alerted of the pothole does the liability come into play, and only after an investigation into each claim since it involves taxpayer dollars.

"We take that responsibility very seriously," Tacoma’s claims manager Jean Homan said. Even if there is a legitimate claim, many factors go into the amount drivers actually receive for the damage. The age and wear of the tires, the age of the car and rims lower the amount. Payouts for damage to expensive sport or performance rims don’t factor much into the final check amount because the owner assumes more risk of damage by installing after-market rims. "All of those factors are calculated into it as well," Homan said. Awful road conditions cost U.S. motorists $67 billion per year in additional repairs and operating costs – an average of $335 per motorist nationally according to the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials. The group’s report, http://roughroads.transportation.org/RoughRoads_FullReport.pdf" Rough Roads Ahead: Fix Them Now or Pay for It Later” also states that a third of the nation’s highways – interstates, freeways and major roads – are in poor or fair condition. It also states that every $1 spent in keeping a road in good condition saves $6 to $14 that would be required to rebuild the road that has deteriorated beyond repair.

For more information:

The city’s proposed Public Works Department budget and the detail involving street improvements is available online at http://www.cityoftacoma.org A fiv.e-year summary of the 696 pothole-related claims against the city is available in the online version of this article. If you spot a pothole, report it to the city’s street department at (253) 591-5161, online at https://www.tacomaservices.org/default.do" http://www.tacomaservices.org or Tweet it to @CityofTacoma as well as report it at http://www.tacomaweekly.com/potholepig.

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