When something starts falling apart in your home, you probably figure out the cheapest way to fix it for the longest amount of time to avoid replacing it.
That’s the strategy the city of Wichita is taking to its streets.
Pavement inspection crews — perhaps you’ve seen them driving painfully slowly across the city, a strange-looking tool with wheels hanging out the driver’s side window of their trucks — are assessing the condition of Wichita’s paved streets. They are collecting data about the condition of streets that the city can use in the future to help determine where and how money is spent. They’re measuring cracks and looking for potholes.
“We are working with them to develop a process for evaluating condition that’s repeatable, reliable and purely data driven,” maintenance engineer Aaron Henning said of the city’s contract with Baughman Co. “We hope to look more in terms of economic measures than condition-based measures. Not whether a street is good or bad but what is the best investment we can make at this time. We hope to use the information that we’re gathering now to develop a model very soon that will help us project different strategies and/or different approaches and model that over time, perhaps as much as 40 years or more.”
The city maintains 1,809 miles of paved streets, totaling more than 322 million square feet. It has budgeted $7 million next year for maintenance.
Like other cities, Wichita typically has rated streets on a scale of 1 to 100 — one being the worst and 100 a newly paved street. The rating system is called the “pavement condition index,” or PCI.
The city’s overall average at the end of last year was 69.57. That number has been falling. In 2010, it was 70.80, and in 2009, 71.68. In 2008, the average rating of city streets was 72.12.
The pavement condition index can be subjective, Henning said.
“We can tell over time that the PCI has been trending downward,” he said. “Instead of just saying that the condition is getting worse, we hope to quantify that in the future. Everybody has their own idea of what an acceptable street is. We have 50 percent of our streets that rate below a 70, which traditionally has been the average. But when I drive around, I don’t feel that half of our streets are below average.”
Henning said the city is moving toward looking at individual streets and determining “how much life does that street have in it, apply that to the network and get an idea of the present value of the network.”
The city is focusing its efforts on what types of street treatments and repairs yield the highest return on investment.
“Over the past few years, we’ve been piloting new preservation treatments or reintroducing ones we haven’t used in a long time,” Henning said.
For example, the city is using preservative seals, a process much like painting your house to protect it from the elements or replacing shingles to keep your roof in shape.
The city also is using treatments “designed not necessarily to fix the problems but to at a minimum keep the problems from getting worse, hopefully make the ride on that road a little better at the same time and do that more cheaply than we could do a reconstruction or a more major treatment on that road.”
The city will use data about street conditions to determine what maintenance pays off the most.
“You may be able to do three three-year treatments cheaper than you could do one nine-year treatment,” Henning said.
Baughman likely will be working into February or March, Henning said. There are six crews, one assigned to each Wichita City Council district.
Last year, the city’s worst streets continued to be in District 1, represented by Lavonta Williams. That district includes parts of central and northeast Wichita.
The best streets continued to be in District 5 in the western part of the city, represented by Jeff Longwell.
“I’m sort of lucky for the most part because of the newness and growth in west Wichita. With some exception, our streets are going to look much better than the rest of the city’s,” Longwell said.
Longwell said his district and District 2 in east Wichita, represented by Pete Meitzner, have forgone street maintenance money in the past to “allow that to go to our worst streets, which were in a couple of our more Midtown districts. We recognized that we need to fix our worst streets now.”
Longwell said data being collected now will help the city figure out where to spend its money.
“The question is going to be, what are you going to do about budgeting and prioritizing to fix those streets?” Longwell said. “What can we do with these new maintenance techniques and make those dollars go further?