Tribune editorial: SLC road bond: Before taxpayers start bailing, city should stop failing

Scott Sommerdorf | The Salt Lake Tribune A section of damaged road on the south side of 100 South just west of University in Salt Lake City.

Good intentions have paved Salt Lake City’s roads to hell.

Years of neglecting road maintenance has brought Utah’s capital city to a point of no return. Two-thirds of city roads are considered poor or worse, according to an independent analysis. Less than 10 percent were considered “good” or “satisfactory.” Now the city is looking at $20 million a year just to attack the backlog.

There is no surprise in this. Four years ago, the Salt Lake City Council even went so far as overriding then-Mayor Ralph Becker’s veto of a property tax increase. The council intended some of the money for roads, but even after the override Becker put the money toward employee raises instead. It wouldn’t have been enough anyway.

The ensuing years have seen various pledges from city officials to change their tune. It’s likely that every current council member campaigned on a pledge to address roads. But so far it’s been mostly talk.

Meanwhile, the roads keep crumbling. As it is, major city thoroughfares like 1100 East through Sugar House and 300 West in the “big box” retailing area are crevasse-filled stretches that turn shopping into a GoPro adventure.

And it’s only getting worse. Potholes that opened up last winter are still unfilled. That ensures today’s cracking roads are tomorrow’s failed ones. As the city engineer says of unmaintained roads, “ ... it’s not a straight-line deterioration. They get really bad really quick.”

Mayor Jackie Biskupski, with the City Council’s support, is asking voters to approve an $87 million bond for road reconstruction over 10 years. It would take 20 years to pay back the bond.

This is on top of two other tax increases that city residents already must absorb. Salt Lake City recently added a half-cent sales tax in part for roads, and Salt Lake County is also bumping its rate up for roads and transit. Combined, the sales tax rate is going from 6.85 percent to 7.60 percent in Salt Lake City.

Because the city is retiring other debt, the bond won’t raise property taxes much. But residents would be passing up a chance to drop their taxes by an average of $41.75 per year.

At this point, the bond may be unavoidable, but it has to come with genuine change. Maintenance means responding in real time. They need to fill the holes and cracks before they grow. It also means better coordination and oversight of utilities that dig up and patch roads with varying success.

Without the city changing its ways, we could see the new bond-funded roads fall apart before the bond is paid off.

Road maintenance is a core competency for cities, and Salt Lake City has been failing. Before taxpayers bail them out, city officials need more than intentions. They need to show they know what they’re doing.