West Bend’s Mean Streets

My column for the West Bend Daily News is online. They’ve changed the platform where I can link to it now. Here it is:

It has long been held the government that has the most impact on one’s daily life is local government. Nothing could be truer than with the responsibility of local government to build and maintain the local streets on which we almost all travel and on which the commerce of a city flows. The city of West Bend’s Transportation Committee met last week to gather input about if and how the city should go about improving the overall quality of the city’s streets.

Measuring the overall quality of a city’s streets is no easy task. It is common for people to grouse about the streets because they are the most visible element of a city’s infrastructure. People drive, walk or ride on them every hour of every day, but virtually no one traverses all of the city’s streets in a year — much less a day. As such, someone’s perception of a city’s streets is largely driven by their experience on the streets that take them on their daily errands.

For example, my perception of West Bend’s streets is that they are pretty good. The streets between my home, church and frequent retail destinations are all in good condition. But when I occasionally find myself in some of the older parts of the city, the streets could use some work. For people who live and work in those older neighborhoods, their perception is likely that the streets of the city are in poor shape.

This makes it difficult for city leaders to use citizen complaints as a measurement of overall street quality. Citizen complaints are a very subjective view and one where one cranky citizen on a bad street with an axe to grind can give a massively skewed vision of reality.

In order to be more objective about measuring the aggregate quality of streets in the city, West Bend adopted the Pavement Surface Evaluation and Rating scale as a more-objective measurement tool. The PASER scale, which was developed by the University of WisconsinMadison Transportation Information Center, measures pavement on a scale of one to 10 with 10 being a brand new street. The scale is not perfect. It is still somewhat subjective because it only uses a visual inspection, but it allows a fairly straightforward way to measure the quality of West Bend’s roughly 130 miles of streets.

The PASER rating is calculated every other year. In 2011, some folks were concerned because West Bend’s overall PASER rating dropped to 5.89, as compared to a benchmark of 6.11 in 2005. In response, the city has increased spending for streets by about 25 percent over the past several years. In the most recent rating in 2013, the city’s PASER rating climbed to 6.05. The 2015 rating has not yet been released.

All of this brings us to the meeting last week in which the committee asked the citizens if they want better streets, and if so, how would they like to pay for them?

For the first question, it is easy for citizens to say they want better roads, but at what cost? West Bend’s current PASER rating is actually above average for cities of a similar size in Wisconsin. The estimates are that if the taxpayers increase spending on streets by about 150 percent, it would raise the city’s PASER rating by about one rating.

Going back to people’s perceptions, if the city’s overall rating is a 7.05 instead of a 6.05, would the citizens be more satisfied? That depends on whether or not any given citizen is able to take advantage of better streets. According to Alderman Rich Kasten, who chaired the committee, they have not found any study that correlates PASER rating with citizen satisfaction. We do not know if a PASER rating of seven versus six will have any perceptible impact on citizen satisfaction or if the PASER rating is really only good for prioritizing street construction projects.

As for the second question, if the citizens of West Bend want to improve their overall street conditions, the only way to do it is to spend more. That money has to come from somewhere. The committee formally asked for input on five options and discussed a sixth. The options were a (1) wheel tax; (2) garbage fee; (3) grants; (4) special assessment; (5) property tax increase; and (6) a city sales tax increase that is not currently permitted by state law, but is under consideration in Madison.

In short order, the answers to the options should be (1) no; (2) no way; (3) yes; (4) absolutely not; (5) nope; and (6) are you kidding me?

At this point, West Bend has already increased spending on streets substantially, but has not yet seen the full effect of that increased spending. The PASER rating increased in 2013 and will likely do so again when the 2015 ratings are tabulated.

Even if that were not the case, the city’s rating is already higher than those of similar cities. It is not justifiable for the city to increase spending even further — much less impose additional taxes — to increase a rating that has no known measurable impact on citizen satisfaction.

Kudos to the city of West Bend’s Transportation Committee for actively engaging the citizens in this important discussion about a critical responsibility of city government. They should advise the Common Council to stay the course, apply for grants that are available and continue to focus on prioritizing projects with an eye to overall citizen satisfaction.