Sylvester Turner’s press conference on potholes this week was masterful misdirection. Most of the media headlines were that Turner claimed the City was repairing 100% of its potholes. But if you read the fine print, the City is only repairing 100% of the potholes that are reported on the City’s 311 service and then only if the City deems the report to be a pothole.
According to the information released at the press conference, there have been about 20,000 calls to report a pothole since Turner has been in office. But the City has only “deemed” about 7,500 of those to actually be potholes. It is pretty easy to score 100% when you exclude anything you don’t want to count!
Only a small fraction of pothole repairs originate with a 311 request. Again, based on the data released at the press conference, of the roughly 160,000 potholes repaired since Turner took office, only 7,500 (just under 5%) were based on a 311 request.
The truth is that the Turner administration is repairing fewer potholes than the Parker administration did in its last year.
But frankly any discussion about how many potholes are filled is a distraction. The real issue is the dramatic decline in the City’s long-term investment in its streets over the last 15 years. The City has about 15,000 lane miles of streets within its boundaries. The average life of an asphalt street is 20-30 years and a concrete street is about 40-50 years. If we take a rough average of 40 years, it means that the City should be completely resurfacing about 375 lane miles per year.
But the City has not come close to that level of street replacement in over a decade. If you really want to understand why Houston’s streets are such a disaster, take a close look at this chart.
The last year that the City replaced enough lane miles to keep up with expected useful life of its streets was 2005. Since then it has fallen almost 2,300 lane miles behind. This is why your streets look like they should be in a third-world country.
This is the fundamental reality Houstonians must face if they want better streets. Staged press conferences with City officials dressed in overalls filling faux potholes is nothing but a diversion.
So, what’s to be done, you ask? Here are some ideas.
- The City must adopt zero-based budgeting. City officials constantly whine that they do not have enough money for just about anything citizens ask for, like decent streets. But as you can see from the chart above, the City’s revenues have almost doubled during the same period that it cut lane reconstruction by two-thirds. Last year alone, the City’s revenues were up by 4%.
The City does not have a revenue problem; it has a spending problem. Until we adopt zero-based budgeting and challenge every department to justify every dollar of taxpayer money we spend, we will never properly prioritize our spending. By the way, Turner promised dozens of times on the campaign trail to adopt zero-based budgeting but he has not kept his word.
- The TIRZs must be reformed. Last year the TIRZs (Tax Increment Reinvestment Zones) collected nearly $150 million of your property tax dollars. That is a 72% increase from just 2014. While some of the TIRZs are providing their neighborhoods with critical infrastructure projects that the City has failed to deliver, much of this money is wasted. Of course, the $200 million Post Oak bus lane project is the most egregious example. But even the well run TIRZs add an additional layer of bureaucracy and expense.
- Stop raiding the pay-as-you-go lockbox. Houstonians created a pay-as-you-go lockbox in 2011 for streets and drainage which has been raided ever since to balance the general fund budget and pay for pet projects.Turner repeatedly promised during the 2015 campaign to end the diversions out of the lockbox, yet they go on unabated. This must end.
- Revise contracting rules. The City has incredibly arcane and outdated contracting rules which increase the cost of infrastructure projects. Also, under Turner the City has begun using “matrix scoring” as opposed to low bid. This has resulted in many occasions where the City accepted bids that were not the lowest bid, thus increasing the costs to the City. A task force should review all of these rules and streamline. (By the way, the City also has a terrible reputation for not paying its bills on time, which forces contractors build in extra money to carry the City.)
There are other potential improvements. But these illustrate we need a mayor dedicated to managing the City, not one that engages in a never-ending a public relations campaign. Managing the City is not sexy or flashy. It is just hard work that must be done every day based on real data – not manufactured stats created for a press conference.
If that is the kind of management you would like to see at City Hall, then join my campaign. Let’s have a City government as great as the City it serves . . . and let’s get these streets fixed!
This is political advertising paid for by the Bill King Campaign