Traverse City Record-Eagle

May 16, 2013

Traverse City eyes bond to fix roads

Traverse City Record-Eagle

---- — TRAVERSE CITY — Winter 2012-13 laid bare Traverse City's street problems and some city officials want to consider jump-starting a 20-year road repair program with a bond program of up to $20 million.

Potholes popped up like dandelions this spring and city commissioners said residents continue to complain loudly about the city's roads. Six candidates who recently interviewed for the city manager's position mentioned road woes, which prodded some commissioners to consider borrowing money to accelerate street projects.

"It's the biggest complaint we are getting," Commissioner Jim Carruthers said. "Maybe we need to go into debt a little bit to catch up where we ought to be."

Commissioners hiked road and sidewalk repair spending from $100,000 annually to $1.25 million over the past few years. But even leveraging its contribution with other funding sources, city officials estimate it will take 20 years to rebuild or repave all the streets that need work.

Potholes are created when water seeps into broken pavement and then expands as it freezes, leaving fractured pavement. Better roads develop fewer potholes, but this year some sections of city streets literally crumbled.

"This year we had a double whammy that is far worse than previous years," City Manager Ben Bifoss said. "Our freeze-thaw cycle went on and on and on, and I haven't seen that kind of conditions in 25 years."

The slow arrival of spring delayed by a month the opening of plants that produce hot asphalt needed for patches that stick. Asphalt plants opened May 6 and three city crews are laying down about 10 tons of asphalt a day to fill potholes, Bifoss said. He expects it will take the crews two to three weeks to fill all the potholes before they can move on to larger surface repairs.

There's little the city can do to speed up the patching work, but it could do more street projects by borrowing $10 million or $20 million and doing more projects now, Bifoss told commissioners this week. The city would then use all or some of the money it currently sets aside for roads to pay off the debt.

Residents and city commissioners appear divided on the borrowing question.

"You might as well go for the $20 million and get it done and get it done right," said city resident Gary Tafelsky. "But you've got to spend that money wisely."

Resident Janice Shaub said borrowing money doesn't sound like a good idea to her. She'd rather see the city continue to pay as work proceeds.

Commissioner Barbara Budros said bonding warrants consideration and Commissioner Jeanine Easterday concurred, noting now would be the time to consider it while interest rates are low.

But Mayor Michael Estes shook his head "no" when asked about borrowing money to fix roads.

"I don't want to burden future generations," Estes said.

Commissioners asked for a staff report on their options. They may be able to review additional information at a June 10 meeting.