Don Gale: Utah’s lousy road maintenance reflects political dysfunction

(AP Photo/Matt Rourke) Employees of the Allentown, Pennsylvania, streets department patch a hole near Jordan Park in Allentown.

“It’s like driving in a Third World country,” said the driver, dodging another pothole.

“I’ve been to Third World countries,” I said, “and roads there are in better shape than those in Salt Lake City and Salt Lake County.”

Roads in the city and county are at least 10 years behind in maintenance, repair and replacement. Elected leaders provide all kinds of excuses, but the real reasons boil down to about four political decisions.

First, the Utah Legislature made it difficult (if not impossible) for cities and counties to raise enough money to adequately maintain local roadways. Years ago, a meddling Legislature placed strict limits on how local governments can tax citizens. (Imagine the weeping and wailing at the Utah Capitol if Washington had imposed similar restrictions on state governments.) Raising revenue to pay for local government services should be between local taxpayers and their elected officials.

Second, mayors over the past decade or two transferred funds designated for road maintenance to other projects. Sometimes those projects were related to transportation, and sometimes they were not. Both mayors and council members favored certain causes, and they quietly shifted tax dollars to those causes. Road maintenance money was an easy target.

Powerful citizen action groups lobby for everything from bike lanes, to homeless shelters, to adding more buses and trains. Mayors and city council members pay attention to such groups. But no group marches through downtown demanding improved streets and roads. Raising more money through targeted tax increases may be the right thing to do, but mayors and council members are often more interested in their own re-election than in doing the right thing. It’s better, they think, to cause a few accidents than to sacrifice one’s own political celebrity status.

Third, unscrupulous contractors submit ridiculously low bids for road projects, knowing they have neither the equipment nor the work force to complete projects on time and to specifications. They know, too, that they can usually petition successfully for additional money and/or time. One need not drive far to find what should be week-long projects stretched into months ... or utility covers left an inch or two below road level ... or too-thin surface repairs instead of needed roadbed replacement ... or temporary patches using inferior materials.

Fourth, to save money, both the city and the county have cut back on the number and qualifications of road project inspectors. There simply are not enough qualified inspectors to keep track of the many road projects under way at any given time. As a result, private contractors are able to short-change both the city and the county on road projects. They sometimes use substandard methods, substandard materials and substandard equipment.

The president and Congress talk about improving the infrastructure, including roads and highways. Infrastructure proposals include help for local communities. But similar talk has been around for decades ... and nothing happens. Local citizens cannot depend on today’s irresponsible Congress to find the wisdom and courage to act responsibly.

We do not live in a Third World nation. Citizens of Utah cities deserve better road maintenance than they are are getting from the Legislature, from mayors, from city and county councils and from contractors.

Don Gale.

Don Gale is a long-time Utah journalist. He has driven on and written about Utah roads and Utah government for two-thirds of a century.