Boots & Sabers

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0733, 18 Aug 15

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.


0733, 18 August 2015


  1. Kraig Sadownikow

    Nice article Owen, very fairly written. The Aldermen on the Committee along with staff are doing a nice job of working together on a pretty sensitive topic. Streets and Taxes are tough to discuss without raising blood pressure.

    The past 4 years we have increased the amount dedicated to streets by about 25%. We project increasing this by at least 4% annually to stay ahead of inflation.

    Additionally, staff has been asked to reach out to 3 or 4 of the contractors who consistently bid on our road work in an effort to see how the prevailing wage law changes may affect their bidding process and bid amounts.

    Pending the results, we may be able to project more road mile maintenance beginning in 2017 when the law takes effect. More maintenance with the same amount of investment….hopefully.

  2. Kevin Scheunemann


    I would like to see your contractor’s responses, if possible.

    I agree Owen wrote an excellent article.

    In Kewaskum, we faced the same constituent concern about roads. We have increased road project spending by cutting staff positions, including our building inspector.

    Thanks to the City of West Bend, Kewaskum hires West Bend’s building inspection department at a savings to the previous Kewaskum position and the contract also helps the City of West Bend offset some of the cost of their inspection department.

    So this is a case where shared services between West Bend and Kewaskum helps to fund Kewaskum’s increased demand for street maintainence.

    The one missing issue in the conversation is: When doing a street, is it just the road? Or does the water and sewer have to be replaced?

    When talking the second one, that is what adds to the project cost big time. Generally, the water and sewer bills pay for the water and sewer infrasctructure replacements. Citizens are very adamant about water and sewer rates not going up as well. So this issue also needs to be part of the conversation, as well as DNR mandates that drive up water and sewer bills as well, which crowds out needed replacment projects for streets.

  3. Ashley

    This blog post, as are many things from the City of West Bend, is more propaganda than fact.

    PASER is a self evaluation. After outsourcing their engineering function and facing a sizable political debate, West Bend and their elected officials have an incentive to artificially inflate their PASER ratings.

    Asphalt generally is designed for a 20-year life span. (Assuming adequate sub grade and preventative maintenance) A telling analytic would be the age of the asphaltic surface of each road in West Bend. With 130 miles of road, they need to perform a full depth repaving of 6.5 miles each year. A 2″ mill and overlay would only provide a 10-year life and double the required annual paving mileage. Has a West Bend been performing 6.5 miles of full depth paving each year?

    West Bend has instead substituted a Slurry Seal on roads as a substitute. A slurry seal is a great and cost effective treatment that is used to extend the life of the road surface – but when used appropriately it is done on roads in good condition. (PASER ratings of 6+) West Bend has used this treatment on Rusco Road in 2014 – which probably had a rating around 2 or 3 at the time.. The results, are frankly, embarrassing. This is throwing good money on the wrong project.

    The same can be said for the terrible sealcoat of Schmidt Road. This road was in need of a completely repaving and was instead selected, inappropriately, for a sealcoat treatment, The results are obvious to anyone, even those without experience in pavement preservation.

    However, the transition from an in-sourced Engineering Department has left inexperienced staff in the Engineering Department and the Public Works Department. To compensate, West Bend has brought along one of, if not the least, respected engineering firms in Southeast Wisconsin in Kunkel Engineering, I’m not sure that Kunkel has actually “delivered” any product of substance. (Is the Art Museum Bridge done yet?)

    I’d also be interested in the contractor survey. Mostly because I’m curious as to who the “3 to 4 contractors who consistently bid” are. West Bend has rejected many, many bids over the past few years and regularly only receives one or two bids because contractors are not interested in working for them. This is partially a function of the older regime setting unreasonable standards and the new regimes general ineptitude.

    Instead West Bend will “do the work themselves” because they are able to do it cheaper. This is only true because West Bend does not use job cost accounting and only report the material costs of the project they complete. (Completely hiding the labor and machinery) This also prevents contractors from bidding in the future as they will not invest the time and effort into submitting a bid only to be rejected.

    There is a legitimate conversation to be had on public infrastructure, but as West Bend continues to push the “Everything is OK” propaganda we will ignore it until we have a 40 mile backlog in the system at a cost of $50M.

  4. Kraig Sadownikow

    Sorry you are unhappy Ashley. Please contact Alderman Kasten, he would be happy to take any comments you have and incorporate those into the committee findings.

    The fact, not propoganda, is we are investing 25 percent more to road maintenance than in 2012. Additionally, this committee is intended to do research, communicate with citizens and report findings. To my knowledge this is the first time West Bend has organized a group to specifically look at roads in direct response to citizen complaints.

    I am unsure why you are so angry unless you were one of those who was outsourced, a policy decision made about 2 years ago. Roads have been an issue for 50 years and will continue to be across the state and country.

    Please lower your blood pressure and get involved. We’d be happy to have additional constructive input.

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