There’s more to Salt Lake City’s rutted roads than torn tires and out-of-whack alignments

On average, streets get mended within a month, but the west side finds itself lagging — again.

Para leer este artículo en español, haz clic aquí.

The headaches begin when the kerplunk of a pothole shreds a tire or wrecks a car’s alignment.

For some, the repair bill is more of an inconvenience. Several hundred bucks out the window. The price of living in a place with temperatures that swing from frigid to sweltering.

For others, though, the cost is debilitating. A sidelining of the only way to work. A paycheck wiped out. The last bit of savings chewed up.

And on the side of town where potholes are more likely to cause a greater strain on residents, Salt Lake City officials are less likely to be alerted to the problem.

An analysis of pothole complaints submitted through the city’s mobile app shows east-siders put in repair requests in droves, while only a relative trickle of west-siders let City Hall know when a city-owned road needs fixing.

Of the 728 complaints filed from 2020 through 2022, 122, or about 17%, came from council Districts 1 and 2, which make up all but a narrow slice of the west side.

While the data doesn’t paint the full picture of how the city mends potholes, it does reveal, some say, a deep-seated distrust of government in underserved communities of Utah’s capital, a digital divide among neighborhoods and language barriers that have yet to be fully overcome.

“This extends to so much more than just potholes,” west-side City Council member Victoria Petro said. “This is the west-side story.”

Although a clear disparity exists in how residents on each side of town report potholes, there is no apparent trend in how the city responds to those complaints.

Citywide, it took crews just more than 30 days, on average, to close out requests for pothole repairs.

Many requests took no more than a few days to wrap up, with some potholes being plugged the same day they were reported. A few cases, however, took nearly a year for the city to close out.

Equitable repairs

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) A Salt Lake City crews fills potholes along North Star Drive near Redwood Road on Wednesday, Feb. 1, 2023.

Mayor Erin Mendenhall said the data disparity in where complaints are submitted isn’t unusual.

She acknowledged that residents in some areas have more time to send complaints, feel a stronger connection to their government and have the technology handy to notify the city. That doesn’t mean the city isn’t focusing on fixing west-side roads.

“There is a divide in our city, but it does not represent accurately the proportionate needs in the city,” she said. “That’s why you see us repairing streets equitably across the city, not just according to complaints.”

The mayor said 70% of the filled potholes come courtesy of crews going out and finding the mini — and not-so-mini — craters on their own.

Jorge Chamorro, director of the city’s Public Services Department, said crews put extra emphasis on areas that they haven’t already visited or where they haven’t received complaints.

Mendenhall’s administration, meanwhile, is working to address barriers to digital communication and boost the usage and understanding of technology across the city.

The mayor said a multilingual team of liaisons is out in the community, meeting residents in person to better understand their needs and encourage them to speak up.

“We are showing up where people are in an effort to let them know that their voices matter to us,” Mendenhall said, “and we want to engage with them.”

How to let the city know about a pothole, graffiti or some other issue?

You can submit complaints and track requests through the city’s mobile app, available for free in the Apple and Google Play app stores.

Requests may also be submitted through an online portal at saltlakecityut.citysourced.com.

For more information about how to let the city know of issues in your neighborhood, visit slc.gov/request-report/.

Raising expectations

Petro, who represents the Rose Park, Jordan Meadows and Westpointe neighborhoods along with part of Fairpark, said the dearth of pothole complaints from the west side speaks to a long-standing lack of institutional trust.

The first-term District 1 council member said historical disenfranchisement has led too many west-siders to stay home on Election Day, not pick up the phone when there’s crime in their neighborhood, and not submit a complaint when their roads need fixing — even as potholes create real hurdles for them.

Punching a time clock can be hard if you’re losing tires — and work hours — due to poor roads, Petro said, and it’s tough for families to move up the economic ladder if car repairs keep deflating their bank accounts.

Many residents don’t expect any better for their neighborhoods, she said, and that needs to change.

“You should tell us when things are wrong,” she said. “It’s not going to imperil you. It’s not going to imperil your kids. You should expect to be able to drive your car on a road without popping a tire. That should be an expectation you have.”

City officials try to connect with residents where they are, Petro said, because the mobile app to submit complaints about potholes and other city issues doesn’t seem to resonate with everyone.

If that means sending employees to places like the River’s Bend Senior Center to speak directly with Fairpark residents, Petro said, the city will do it, even if it’s more expensive and more time-consuming than collecting responses online.

The cultural shift that’s required to heighten participation in government doesn’t have a quick fix, but it’s something Petro said she and fellow west-side council member Alejandro Puy are laboring to accomplish.

Blue-collar, hardworking and hard-pressed

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Alejandro Puy, left, and Victoria E. Petro are sworn in as Salt Lake City Council members in January 2022.

Puy, who represents Glendale, Poplar Grove and a section of Fairpark, said the city needs to be better at letting west-siders know that tools such as the mobile app are available.

His District 2 council office routinely sends out information about the app in English and Spanish. The first-term council member knocks on doors every month and leaves flyers behind with links to the app and an explanation of what it can do.

Beyond reporting potholes, residents can let the city know about graffiti, illegal dumping, traffic signals, snow removal and more.

“I’m doing the work myself,” he said. “We need to do more than that. We need to really spread the word. It’s going to take a while.”

Part of the problem, Puy said, is that many of his constituents carry two or three jobs, so if it comes down to choosing between filing a complaint or catching a few more Z’s before heading to work again, letting the city know of a neighborhood issue might take a back seat.

“We are a blue-collar, hardworking group of people that have a lot of challenges,” Puy said. “The pothole in front of your house is very much lower [on your priority list] when you’re trying to put food on your table. That is the reality that many people on the west side experience.”

Language is ‘a major handicap’

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) A Salt Lake City crew fills potholes along North Star Drive near Redwood Road on Wednesday, Feb. 1, 2023.

Alessandro Rigolon, a University of Utah assistant professor in the Department of City & Metropolitan Planning, said east-side population density likely influences some of the concentration of complaints, but there’s more at play.

“It happens, in a way, across socioeconomic and racial lines,” he said, “where there’s research showing that people in higher-income neighborhoods are more likely to call local government to complain about issues than folks in lower-income neighborhoods.”

Part of the reason is a lack of trust in government, he said, while having time and know-how are also factors that influence which neighborhoods clue in City Hall to their problems.

Rigolon suspects a digital divide and technological literacy also fuel the shortage of west-siders reaching out about road repairs.

“If you don’t have a smartphone,” he said, “probably it’s harder to report those kinds of things.”

And for some, Rigolon said, language could be the barrier.

Nearly a quarter of Salt Lake City residents speak a language other than English at home, according to census data. The most common — Spanish — isn’t available in the mobile app.

That, Puy said, needs to change.

“I know that our city is trying very hard to make tools like this available for everybody,” he said, “but in a community like mine, that is a huge handicap, not having the app accessible in Spanish.”

Mendenhall’s office adopted a new language accessibility policy late last year that is intended to provide increased access to city resources for residents who have limited ability to speak, understand, read or write English.

While the policy does not specifically address language accessibility in technology, Mendenhall spokesperson Andrew Wittenberg said translating the mobile app is part of the administration’s aspirations; no timeline for that task has been set.

App or no app, that thud of hitting a pothole needs no translation.