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To better manage the city’s streets after years of recession-related funding cuts, Santa Maria has begun to formally grade all its streets by condition.

Starting at the end of May, San Luis Obispo-based Pavement Engineering Inc.(PEI) began surveying each city street with a goal of giving each segment — which generally range in size from a quarter- to half-mile — a numerical score indicating how urgently the street needs to be treated.

“They rate roads from 1 to 100, with 100 being the day it was paved,” said Rodger Olds, principal civil engineer with the city. “This current effort is trying to get a good, honest snapshot of where our roads are right now.”

Using the numbers, the Public Works/Engineering Department plans to write a report on the city’s street maintenance program to be released this fall.

Many city streets that are candidates for treatment are casualties of funding cutbacks in the years following the recession, said Olds.

During the recession the city’s annual spending on chip seals — a preventative treatment used on major thoroughfares to keep them from weathering — dropped from $1 million to around $500,000, Olds said.

“A lot of the annual maintenance was deferred — and it shows,” said Eric Riddiough, senior civil engineer. “We’re trying to catch up from that.”

Santa Maria resident John DiMeglio said issues with the city’s streets are no secret. “No one in Santa Maria is ignorant about the condition of the streets,” he said.

Resident Sara Swanson pointed to West Morrison Street as being in particularly bad condition. “We used to live by there and we’d go through lots of tires,” Swanson said.

Grading city streets

In the 2013-14 fiscal year, the city purchased a database program called StreetSaver, and had its streets graded using a “windshield survey,” meaning streets conditions were determined by an observer from a car window.

“The city sent two engineers to a StreetSaver conference this past year to learn how to best utilize the program, and how to really make it work for us,” Olds said. “One of the things they got from that was the best way to really get a good analysis from the software was to get what you’d call a ‘boots-on-the-ground’ survey.”

In April 2018 PEI was awarded the 3-year contract to conduct the street ratings and oversee some pavement repair at a cost of $100,000 the first year and $80,000 each the second and third year.

Using specialized equipment, a PEI engineer will test how each roadway segment responds to deflection, loading and determine the structural characteristics of the roadway.

“The plan is to do the whole city all at once this summer,” Olds said. “After that, to keep an accurate tab on the health of the city’s streets.”

Collector streets and arterial roads — the city’s moderate- and high-capacity streets — would be regraded every two years and residential streets graded every four years, Olds said.

“Ideally, we’d like to get to a point where we have a five-year plan and aren’t just going year-by-year,” Riddiough said. “This will allow us to do that.”

On the 0 to 100 Pavement Condition Index (PCI) scale, 80 or above is considered very good, Olds said, adding that a score below 70 indicates the average person would see visible signs of distress on the road.

“Our goal is to get everything above 70,” Riddiough said. “Hopefully, we’ll get there sometime. But when stuff gets below 50, it takes a lot of money to get those treated. If you’re starting at a 70 it’s a lot more cost effective to [treat the road].”

A road's PCI score drops by two to three points each year due to weather and traffic, Olds said. “We’re making an effort to try to gain some ground on it. But it’s kind of like the bunny hop: You take three steps forward, you might take two steps back."

As of now the city’s PCI — the average of all city streets — stands at 75 compared to 59 in the unincorporated area of Santa Barbara County.

Fixing weathered roads

Once the city streets have been graded, there are several treatment options the city can use: slurry seal, chip seal, and thin maintenance overlays.

Slurry seals — cracks are filled and existing pavement is preserved — and chip seals — protective coatings of asphalt and crushed rocks — are preventative measures that extend the life of streets that are only mild to moderately weathered, Olds said.

The goal is to perform treatments like chip seals and slurry seals before streets deteriorate to a point where they are no longer effective, because other treatments dramatically increase in price.

According to city engineers, a slurry seal costs $2-$3 per square yard and a chip seal is $3-$4 per square yard treated. In comparison, the city’s current thin maintenance overlay project is slated to cost $20 to $25 per square yard.

“As the roads age, we want to make sure we get a proper treatment on it,” Olds said. “This whole program is designed to make sure that we get the proper treatment on the road at the proper time. If we treat a road too early or too often then sure, that road might be in really nice shape, but it’s wasteful. We got to make sure we’re attending to all our roads and we do have limited resources. We have to make sure we extend our dollar as best we can.”

The city recently awarded a $750,000 contract to Granite Construction to perform a thin maintenance overlay on sections of East Cypress, North Valerie, North Lincoln and East Pershing streets, along with a section of North Palisades Drive.

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Performed when cheaper preventative treatments are no longer feasible, thin maintenance overlays involve laying a hot asphalt mix on the road. The treatment is expected to last seven to 10 years.

Riddiough estimated that 50 street segments could be candidates for a thin maintenance overlay treatment, especially on older roads in the northern part of the city.

“But really, we've got to do pavement analysis,” Riddiough added. “You don’t look at the street and think, ‘Oh, I think it needs this treatment.'”

City engineers wouldn't give examples of street segments that could be candidates for an overlay treatment because the streets hadn’t been formally graded and scored yet. They said it wasn’t clear which of those streets would be treated in the upcoming year.

As the city receives the grades for each street, Olds said the city will have to balance between treating the city’s worst roads and performing preventative treatments on roads in good condition.

“If you spend all your money taking care of the roads that are really, really bad then you don’t have any money to prevent other roads from getting to that point,” Olds said. “Then you’ve lost all your roads since you spent all your money on just fixing a couple roads.”

Concerns over future funding

As city engineers plan for the next several years of street work, they fear a November vote to repeal the SB-1 gas tax could put much of the funding in jeopardy.

Signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown last year, the SB-1 gas tax went into effect in October 2017 and added a 12 cents per gallon tax to gasoline and 20 cents per gallon tax to diesel to fund transportation-related projects.

The tax — which is slated to provide the city with millions of dollars for street maintenance in the coming years — could be repealed in November.

“This past year, it’s meant another $600,000 for the city,” Olds said. “This next year, it’ll be $1.6 million for the city, and ultimately, in about two years, it’ll be about $2.4 million for the city. That’s what the projections are, and that’s money we’ll be able to directly spend on pavement improvements.”

Olds added that the thin maintenance overlay project that Granite Construction is working on is paid for completely with SB-1 money.

The city's 2018-19 budget for pavement management projects is $3.5 to $4 million, Riddiough said, with SB-1 accounting for a little under half of that amount.

“Half of our budget would go away without it,” Riddiough said. “It’s going to mean a big difference for our pavement management”

Razi Syed covers Santa Maria City Government for Lee Central Coast Newspapers.  Follow him on Twitter @razisyed

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