Road woes drag on into winter

Over the potholes and through the mud, to grandmother’s house we go.

Those aren’t the real words to the song. But one can imagine similar verses by drivers on Fort Ward Hill Road, where many residents – including, presumably, grandma – have felt less than festive about construction they say has stretched needlessly into the holiday season.

“It’s nothing but potholes,” southend resident Lorna Alsalam said last week, before crews laid a temporary layer of asphalt on the road. “People’s cars are just being trashed.”

Alsalam saw a variety of construction-related obstacles as responsible for the trashing: potholes, gravel, dips and shelves that became fixtures along a roughly 1,600-foot stretch that was torn up at the north end of the road, just south of Blakely Harbor.

According to City Engineer Bob Earl, the goal of the $579,000 project was twofold: to straighten the curve at the bottom of the hill – which made for a dangerous turn onto Country Club Road – and to improve the stability of the base beneath the surface of the street.

Work began in mid-September and was coming along well.

Then came the rains.

“If we hadn’t had this gargantuan storm,” Earl said, “we wouldn’t have had some of these problems.”

Heavy rains continually washed away fill, exposing flaws in the road and forcing crews to re-grade several times on areas they’d already finished. That delayed paving, which couldn’t begin until the weather dried out – something that hasn’t happened much of late.

“All of that could have been foreseen,” said southend resident Carolyn Siscoe, who said she’s baffled by the decision to begin the work so late in the year. She’s upset at the poor conditions through which she and her neighbors were forced to navigate recently.

“It’s more than potholes,” Siscoe said. “These are trenches that are two feet deep.”

Alsalam had similar frustrations about the timing of the work, and said her inquiries at the city were equally frustrating.

“I was told they decided to take a gamble,” she said. “Where’s the wisdom in this? This is why people shoot down tax measures.”

Earl said he understands the frustration of drivers, but said there were a number of constraints on the project, beginning with funding.

The 2007 city budget was finished late, meaning the project went to bid late. Thus the work itself was pushed back until fall; given the city’s well-known budget crunch, Earl said, it was better to try and finish this year, rather than push work back to 2008 and risk losing funding.

“We’re taking a little bit of a risk because it’s pretty damp,” Earl said, of laying the asphalt in December.

Some portions may need to be redone later before adding the final layer of asphalt, but the surface should be more palatable for drivers than the sub-grade they’ve been dealing with. The finishing work won’t happen until there’s a prolonged warm, dry spell, perhaps in January or February, but more likely next spring.

The city’s general road maintenance program faces a number of problems heading into the new year. The biggest one is the recent removal from the 2008 budget of $800,000 – the entire allocation for next year’s maintenance work.

Road striping, patching and the re-grading of gravel roads won’t happen as a result. That could lead to trouble next year and beyond, Earl said.

“It’s cheaper to maintain a well-maintained road,” Earl said. “The more lavish costs come when you defer maintenance on roads that are not in great shape to begin with.”

The recent storm compounded problems by causing at least $2.5 million in damage to island roads.

The city has $800,000 in 2007 contingency money to make some repairs, but federal relief won’t come for another year, meaning the city will have to fund work in the meantime.

Siscoe said more emphasis should be placed on basic infrastructure rather than projects like the Winslow Way Streetscape. She also hopes leaders haven’t forgotten about the needs of those who live outside of downtown.

“I don’t think they’ve really thought much about us,” Siscoe said. “I think they’ve just thought about Winslow.”

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