As of August, Chicago's claims unit had received 168 claims regarding vehicle damage from potholes.
“Although the stimulus is a good step, it's merely a down payment,” says Joan Buhrman, spokesperson for the American Society of Civil Engineers, which has “graded” various infrastructure categories — streets, road, and bridges, for example, and water — six times since 1988. This year, the nation's infrastructure as a whole received a D. “The expectations were that this would create big iconic projects resembling the New Deal era, but big projects take a long time.”
In the meantime, cash-strapped states are using the legislation to shore up major shortfalls.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 25 of 33 states narrowed the gap between revenues and expenditures by at least 20% with the legislation's $53.6 billion contribution to the State Fiscal Stabilization Fund. The onetime boost the stimulus provided was designed to give states some flexibility in making 2010 budget decisions.
“The intention was to help them temper their anticipated budget cuts,” says Federal Affairs Counsel Michael Bird, warning that while some states' infrastructure programs avoided cuts, they may not be so lucky when the funding runs out in 2011.
At the local level, 62% of respondents to a National League of Cities survey have delayed or canceled nonstimulus projects as a result of the economic downturn even though 80% reported that infrastructure needs have increased. This is the third time in four years finance directors in cities with more than 50,000 residents have reported lower revenues.
“Cities are getting ready for a bigger decline in property tax receipts,” says City Fiscal Conditions 2009 co-author Michael Pagano, dean of the College of Urban Planning and Public Affairs at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “They're now starting to worry about their 2010 budgets. There's been a reduction in capital spending this year as a result of declining tax revenues and smaller operating budgets. We won't see this thing bottom out for several years until property values and tax receipts pick up again around 2011 or 2012.”
Chicago, for example, laid off 400 employees in June and forced nonunion employees to take 15 days of unpaid leave to help alleviate a $300 million budget shortfall. The city's DOT is using $86 million in economic stimulus money through the Illinois DOT's State Transportation Plan to resurface significantly deteriorated arterial streets with heavy traffic volumes, but the street that was the focus of the South Austin Coalition isn't on the list because it's a collector street with lower traffic volumes.
Like many street departments, Chicago's plans repairs based on the number of calls to the city's 311 system, developing routes by integrating call data into a GIS streets layer. With just one call from that particular block within the previous two months, city crews had higher-priority streets to attend.
Elce Redmond, an organizer of the South Austin Coalition, says he and his neighbors had complained for months about potholes, even lobbying their alderman — unsuccessfully — for help (see “Integrated intervention” on page 32).
“We understand everybody's frustration,” says Chicago DOT Spokesperson Brian Steele. “But when you have people doing work on their own, they're putting themselves in danger and they're not doing it to city standards.” The 50-pound roller, for example, doesn't compact the material properly; and residents didn't square-cut the sides of the potholes before applying the patch (see “Takin' it to the streets” on page 30).
“The stimulus money is coming slowly, but the average person thinks things happen instantaneously,” Stamford's Brown says. “I don't think we do a good enough job at educating the public about the process of getting a project started.”