The potholes in our city this winter are not only an inconvenience — they are expensive and dangerous. We have suffered damage to our vehicles in the thousands of dollars and dodged potholes in rush hour traffic, creating a dangerous situation.
Let’s be honest: The root cause of the pothole crisis is years of the City Council diverting tax dollars from the city’s road maintenance program to other uses.
The fact is that asphalt breaks down over time. The speed at which it deteriorates depends on many factors: everything from traffic volumes and vehicle weights to ultraviolet radiation from sunlight. This creates cracks in the asphalt that allow water to seep in, freeze and expand, breaking the asphalt and creating potholes. The best way to prevent this is regular maintenance.
Some say the crisis was unavoidable because of the harsh winter, but that is not the case. Many of our roads are pristine. Properly-maintained roads with the same traffic and weather have made it through unscathed. The Public Works Department has reported that the city should invest $46 million annually on road maintenance. Public Works estimates that approximately 60 percent, or $27 million, should be spent on its asphalt overlay program, milling off the top few inches of old asphalt and replacing it, preempting the development of potholes.
In August 2012, the City Council asked voters to approve a half-cent sales tax increase for the Parks and Recreation Department, which was supposed to free up millions for streets — money that would be earmarked for street maintenance. Under the ballot language, the city pledged to put $15 million more from the city earnings tax into a dedicated street fund, stating that the new money should bump the annual maintenance to more than $20 million.
In 2013, the city spent $11 million on its street overlay. Instead of going up in later years as promised, it went down to $8.2 million in 2014, $5.9 million in 2015, $7.8 million in 2016 and $9.5 million in 2017. Then in November 2017, voters approved an $800 million bond package, $600 million of which was promised to street maintenance. But the amount spent on roads the following year went down to $8.7 million.
In 2018, voters renewed the Public Improvements Advisory Committee or PIAC tax — about $70 million per year, with 25 percent promised to roads. The overlay program in 2019 is approximately $10 million — less than the $11 million spent in 2013, despite voters approving three sales tax proposals.
While the City Council must prioritize, explicit promises to voters should not be broken. The diversion of taxpayer dollars has long-term consequences that compound each year. Kansas City has over 6,000 miles of roads that need to be maintained, but in recent years the city has properly kept up less than 200 miles. The backlog of under-maintained roads continues to grow. If roads are not managed and become seriously potholed, it may undermine the sub-base, requiring the replacement of the entire roadbed — a very expensive avenue.
When I led the Missouri Department of Transportation, we made taking care of the system a high priority, even with constrained funding, and kept the discipline of regularly maintaining our roads. Transportation dollars were not diverted for other purposes.
The failure to provide these basic services raises significant questions for public confidence in our City Council. If the city lacks the discipline to maintain our roads, then how can the public expect the city to manage a major project like the new terminal at Kansas City International Airport and bring it in on time and on budget? The project has already grown significantly in cost and has fallen a year behind schedule under the City Council’s guidance.
Our city needs a new mayor who will bring experience and proven leadership.
Steve Miller is a attorney and former chairman of the Missouri Highways and Transportation Commission. This is one of a series of columns by candidates for Kansas City mayor.