July 2, 2015: Fixing our roads: do-able but long-term

July 2, 2015: Belmont Citizen-Herald

Belmont’s streets and sidewalks are in lousy condition.  That’s not headline news today.

That result didn’t occur over night.  According to the Warrant Committee (WC) report to Town Meeting in May of this year, the problem can be attributed to “decades of underfunding maintenance of our roads and sidewalks.”

The Town last did a comprehensive analysis of our roads in 2007.  That study “determined that 69% of our roads would have to be completely rebuilt from the dirt up.”  As the WC has said, this is “a far more expensive proposition than preventative maintenance.”

Efforts to increase both the reconstruction and maintenance of our roads have been hampered in recent years by failures at the polls.  Attempts to raise revenue to address road repair were voted down in 2006, 2008 and again in 2010.

Because of the successful over-ride approved by voters in April, however, Belmont will increase its spending on roads this year by more than 20%. In the coming year, the Town will spend “the most ever” on improving the condition of our streets.

According to the WC’s annual budget report to Town Meeting, the road and sidewalk budget approved by Town Meeting this year is “the maximum amount that the [Town] can reasonably spend during the months with weather amenable to pavement work.”

One goal of the 2016 road budget increase, Town Meeting was told, is not only to repair and replace roads, but also “to increase the level of preventative maintenance so that the more recently repaved roads are kept from deteriorating to the point that more expensive complete replacement is required.”  When properly cared for, a reconstructed major road should have an expected life span of twenty years, while the life of a local road is thirty years.

The increased repair and replacement of streets, however, does not bring corresponding good news for the sidewalks associated with the roads being repaired.  According to the Town’s Capital Budget Committee, “in order to make the available road funds as effective as possible,” the Selectmen decided “to expend funds only on the travel surface, omitting almost all curb and sidewalk work.”  The only project that is exempt from this limitation is the Trapelo Road / Belmont Street reconstruction, which is completely state-funded and thus does not compete with other Town road funds.

Nevertheless, sidewalk repair (not associated with road work) in the Town as a whole got a real boost this year. The WC report to Town Meeting indicated that passage of the override “will enable considerably more sidewalk repair.”  The WC told Town Meeting that the increased dollars provided by the override “allows for approximately 7,248 feet of sidewalk, representing a nearly 13 times increase over the typical level.  The passage of the override in April 2015 is an opportunity to address the deplorable condition of many of the town sidewalks.”

Completely fixing the deep hole that Belmont allowed itself to get into because of its long-time failure to take care of its streets and sidewalks will not occur any time soon.  In 2007, under ideal funding conditions, which did not occur, the Town projected that it would take 25 years to resolve our community’s road problems.  Since that time, funding has further lagged and roads have continued to deteriorate.

Beginning this year, however, fixing our streets and sidewalks seems to be within our long-term capability.  We should not, however, expect more than can reasonably be delivered.  The poor condition of our roads and sidewalks is a problem that was allowed to happen over time.  Fixing that problem will need to occur over time as well.

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