Each year, the Metro Public Works department unleashes something called a road profiler — a white van with an array of gadgetry attached to its rear — to drive down the 5,747 miles of streets in Davidson County.
Equipped with digital cameras, lasers and a sophisticated GPS system, this special vehicle has one main focus: the state of the pavement. As its driver navigates along Nashville’s major corridors and quiet neighborhood streets, the road profiler records the good, along with the everyday road nuisances that cause headaches for drivers. The most notorious of these are potholes. There are also pavement distresses with less familiar labels such as alligator cracking, raveling, rutting, corrugation and swelling. The quality of every stretch of every street in Nashville is graded on a 100-point system.
After roads are surveyed, Metro officials have numerical data, accessible via a computerized “paving management system,” to know which streets are in good condition, and more importantly, which ones need attention.
At the moment — and as an upcoming budget process looms — city officials are staring at more and more roads that fall under the deficient category. After several years of inadequate funding and unforeseen weather conditions, nearly half of Nashville’s roads are in sub-par condition.
When the road profiler’s recent round of work wrapped up last year, findings produced an alarming report, delivered to the public works department in October. A survey of approximately three-fifths of Davidson County found 47 percent of Nashville roadways are in poor condition and in need of repair. The remaining 53 percent is considered fair or better.
“This raises a concern,” the report makes clear, “because this percentage is greater than the policy of the Metro government to maintain at least 70 percent of its roadway network at fair or better condition.”
The recent evaluation showed dramatic movement from the previous year, when only 30 percent of Nashville roads were determined to fall within the poorest classification. Today, only 22 percent of Davidson County roads are in ideal condition, compared to 35 percent the year before.
The total number of potholes is up to 4,520 from 2,271 three years ago.
Public works officials have chalked up the report’s findings primarily to two causes: The 2010 May flood, which brought increased water infiltration to road pavement, and the previous two winters’ heightened level of snow, which had a similar effect, compounded by corrosive salt.
“It’s a combination of all of those things,” said Don Reid, paving manager for the public works department, who works out of a smaller trailer office off Trinity Lane in East Nashville. “We’re trying to put a plan in place to address it this year.”
Public works officials say all Nashville roads are safe.
They also claim the meticulous formula used in the evaluation system — overseen by an outsourced consulting firm — creates a misleading picture. A single area of broken rubble on the side of a street, for example, is tracked as a pothole, downgrading the overall score of the stretch of roadway.
“Our condition report considers that a pothole,” Reid said, looking at image of Old Due West Avenue in Madison. “It’s actually a pop-out or a delamination of that top-layer surface. And what you see is where roads were under water for long periods of time, and after the water has settled, then that top surface starts to strip away and pop out. It’s not really a hazard.
“Technically, our roads aren’t as bad as they seem, but they do need to be fixed,” he said.
Nonetheless, the spike in distressed roads is outlined clearly in the department’s report. And what Metro officials don’t readily point out is that funding for road and street projects is never at the level needed.
Billy Lynch, the longtime director of the public works department, said Metro has a policy whereby roadways are to be on an 18-year-cycle, or lifespan. For years, he said, the department has annually advocated for $20 million in capital funds to achieve this goal.
But that dollar figure, at least in recent years, has not been delivered in full amount, regardless who the mayor is.
“The average has been around $6.5 million [since 2002]," Lynch said. “Well, if you’re going to keep the total roadways on an 18-year pavement cycle, that’s got to increase.”
Conventional wisdom suggests former Mayor Bill Purcell, who shied away from major municipal projects and grew the reputation as Nashville’s “neighborhood mayor,” would vastly outdo his successor, current Mayor Karl Dean, in road and street spending.
Some critics accuse Dean of bankrolling the $585 million Music City Center, the largest municipal project in Tennessee history, at the expense of more neighborhood-centric initiatives.
Indeed, Dean and the Metro Council authorized only $9.4 million, $7 million and $4.2 million in road paving during Dean’s first three years in office before setting aside $12 million for the current budget year.
Purcell, meanwhile, concluded his capital-spending plans with a robust $13.9 million in road and street investments during his final budget. Yet leading up to that round of spending were more modest road and street expenditures of $9.5 million, $5.1 million and $2.5 million, respectively.
The October pavement report received its share of headlines and television reports after it first surfaced. But its findings are especially relevant today, as Dean’s administration begins the five-month process of finalizing an operating and capital budget for the 2012-13 fiscal year. Metro departments were asked this month to explore 2 percent cuts to their budgets, but also submit requests for capital expenditures.
Dominating talk this budget cycle is the prospect of Metro’s first property tax increase since 2005. Dean’s campaign committee this month conducted a phone survey to test the mood of Nashvillians on a 50-cent increase to Metro’s $4.13 tax rate.
Dean’s pollster, seemingly to determine how to politically justify a potential tax hike, weighed whether using additional tax revenue to “fund new capital improvement projects such as repairs and maintenance of roads, streets and bridges” would affect the respondent’s opinion of a property tax increase.
Presumably, added tax revenue could allow the city to play catchup in terms of road infrastructure.
Asked about the report detailing the city’s roads, Metro Finance Director Rich Riebeling said, “I think, generally speaking, the roads in Nashville are in decent shape, not great.
“We will always try to do as much as we can, but there’s limited resources and you can only do what you can do.”
The report’s findings — that nearly half of all Metro roads need repairs — are consistent with sentiments of Nashvillians from all corners of the county. It’s not hard to find residents who bemoan the condition of the roads they encounter.
“Right at the intersection of 37th and Murphy Road, it’s pretty brutal,” said Scott Gordon, a resident of Sylvan Park. “It’s almost like a sinkhole.
“People in our neighborhood association — my neighbors — talk about wanting sidewalks, and all sorts of different things like that, when a more pressing issue could be the existing roads that we have,” he said.
Scott McIntosh, a Belmont neighborhood resident who rides his bike to work in Green Hills, runs into a long stretch of bumps on Woodmont Boulevard where it meets Hillsboro Road at a gradual slope. After years of cars braking at the stoplight, the pavement, as McIntosh describes it, has “bubbled up.”
“It’s created this really wavy, bumpy area where you have to stop at a light on a downward slope — which isn’t that bad for a car, but for a bike, it’s a nightmare,” he said.
“Going up Woodmont, I’m scared I’m going to get killed,” he said. “The edge is so small. There’s a drop-off, bumps and holes that would literally blow my tire.”
It’s hard to say which roads are in the worst shape. Issues span the county. Third Avenue North near the Metro Water and Sewerage offices is “broken,” public works officials say. Fesslers Lane, between Interstate 40 and Lebanon Pike, is on the docket for repair. At the north end of the county, Joelton’s Greer Road needs a clean slate of pavement.
The state of Nashville roads hasn’t exactly set off a siren among council members, but many say they have taken notice. In doing so, some cite the shrinking number of public works staff.
Since Dean took office is 2007, the number of Metro government workers has decreased by 670. Many of these jobs were in the public works department. According to Lynch, losses in public works have largely been administrative personnel. The department has tried to maintain as many trucks as possible.
“[With] what’s been cut out of public works over the last several years, and increasing the number of miles of road they have to maintain, it just gets to a point in time where you can’t do it any more,” said Councilman Bo Mitchell, who represents parts of Bellevue. “I think public works has done a tremendous job with what they have.”
Councilman Walter Hunt, who chairs the council’s Public Works Committee, blamed budget cuts and Nashville’s historic flood for the condition of Davidson County’s streets.
“It’s pretty serious,” Hunt said. “We got behind on it.”
Nashville’s paving season begins as the weather warms up.
Reid, the city’s paving manager, said Metro is on “the cutting edge” in terms of street-paving management systems, which alert him and other staff to the roads that need repairs. Viewable on a computer screen is a wealth of information: the segmentation of pavement, its history, its most recent date of completion and its stress level.
“We’ve got an image of every segment of road in Davidson County,” Reid said, referring to a collection of images made possible by the work of the aforementioned road profiler.
When a stretch of a road is deemed in poor condition, the computer system allows public works officials to “ride the segment,” he said, and scope out the degree of damage for themselves. “You might have a three-mile lane road, but only this small part of it is bad.”
Repaving a street isn’t necessarily the way to restore a damaged road. The public works department has a “paving preservation” program that embraces preventive maintenance road techniques to address crumbling roads. (Reid is quick to point out that the department won an award for its preservation system in 2007.)
“This allows us to get into what else can we do to this road besides paving,” Reid said. “Because paving is expensive.”
For example, in cases of raveling — when the aggregate of the pavement’s surface begins to pop out — workers often turn to sealing. Doing so is supposed to increase the road’s lifespan by three to five years, inching closer to the department’s 18-year goal. In effect, it’s a cheaper alternative to paving.
The public works department has also begun turning to infrared technology to address isolated areas on pavement, and avoid having to upend an entire road. Reid and others recently delivered a presentation on the use of infrared to leaders in the field at a conference in Denver.
The infrared heats the top layer of distressed pavement. New asphalt mix is added, and a “seamless patch” is created with the surrounding road,” Reid said.
“The whole road’s not in bad shape,” he said, pointing to a road that received the infrared treatment. “But a lot of people would say my road needs paved.”