Monday, May 27, 2024


Construction on Western Avenue is reaching the end of utility work and will wrap up surface improvements within two construction seasons, officials say. (Photo: Cambridge Public Works)

Construction on Western Avenue is reaching the end of utility work and will wrap up surface improvements within two construction seasons, officials say. (Photo: Cambridge Public Works)

Public works officials have earmarked $5 million for repairs to streets gaping with potholes from wear and a severe winter, but Mayor David Maher urged Monday that those repairs be accelerated – albeit not necessarily to the $42 million price tag estimated to get the job done in about four years.

“I think that taxpayers in the city, if you went to them and said you wanted to start an accelerated street reconstruction program, I think there would be an appetite for that. I know I speak for everybody here that’s probably one of the biggest issues that we all care about: the condition of the roads and sidewalks,” Maher said at a City Council roundtable on capital projects.

“What we’re doing isn’t enough,” he said.

Public Works Commissioner Owen O’Riordan acknowledged the problem bluntly, saying the particularly severe winter had a significant impact on streets and “truthfully, we have struggled the last number of months to keep up with the degree to which are our streets were impacted.”

But the problem isn’t limited to Cambridge, and the allocation of additional state money to communities statewide to address it means “our contractors are being sort of pulled hither and thither” and already unpredictable local repairs have slowed, he said.

Substantial repairs are expected within the next month, O’Riordan said, following up on unattractive crack sealing done to literally hold things together until crews arrived for a more permanent solution.

Construction citywide

The weather effects add strain to a city coping with serious street work issues, including defective work to a just completed Cambridge Street underpass project that is to redone this summer at the contractor’s expense and a years-long project along Western Avenue that Deputy City Manager Lisa Peterson said was at last reaching a “very significant milestone” of ending below-ground utility work to focus on surface work expected to end within the next two construction seasons.

The city’s own five-year roadwork analyses also have crews digging to split combined water and sewer lines to keep water pure in the case of storms and flooding, and the replacement of “cobra head” streetlights with LEDs starting in June and scheduled to be done by fall, Peterson said, bringing a projected 40 percent reduction in energy costs.

“This community is amazing at putting up with all this. It’s very, very tough to have all this construction,” City Manager Richard C. Rossi said, but O’Riordan said there was good cause for the traffic delays, noise and displaced rats brought on by the work:

Our expectations are that once we’re finished here [on Western Avenue] you won’t see us again for 20 or 30 years and that the street will become neighborhood street again. On the flip side, we can go in and do the street and sidewalk part there and we don’t have to invite the gas company in, we don’t have to invite the electric company in, we don’t do our sewer work – we do a very basic repair. And you’ll find that in three or four years we’re back doing repair work on that street.

There’s another benefit to the all-at-once approach, Rossi said: When doing federally mandated sewer and water main projects – mandated because combined systems spill sewage into Alewife Brook, Boston Harbor and the Charles and Mystic rivers – the city helps taxpayers by adding street and sidewalk repairs to the bill “to the extent possible.” It helps when even the state’s additional funds aren’t enough to solve the pothole problem and other needs identified by internal evaluations, he said.

Expenses real and proposed

The work isn’t cheap. A project a decade ago remaking Cambridge Street from Lechmere to Inman Square was expected to cost up to $4.5 million, but with a realization that “full-depth construction” was needed, primarily to deal with access for people with disabilities, the project shot up to $11.5 million, Rossi said, or $14.4 million in today’s dollars.

Setting aside $5 million a year doesn’t have the city slipping backward on repairs and road quality, which is why the figure was bumped up in the budget, said Louis Depasquale, the city’s finance director. But O’Riordan identified a concern apart from the sheer number of dollars applied to the problem:

Heretofore [the city’s street repair] plan has been based primarily on improving accessibility and sidewalk conditions. But to be truthful, to some extent that has led to a situation where in some neighborhoods roadway conditions haven’t been addressed. In the coming years one of the concerns that we have is that the extent to which we’re going to have to do full-depth reconstruction and much more expensive reconstruction of streets is going to become a much more severe and challenging issue. This is the balance we’re trying to strike.

Maher’s focus on potholes was inspired not just by constituent complaints, but by an incident he saw while driving. He saw a woman “take a complete nosedive into a big pothole at Mount Auburn and University Road” that would have been seriously damaging to an older resident.

“I think what we all collectively know is that it isn’t enough,” he said of city street repair efforts, imagining an accelerated repair plan – perhaps $15 million a year for several years – that could be paid for by a progressive assessment of taxes from residents into a special fund. Rossi said he would look into the feasibility and legality of the idea.

While described as not practical, the $42 million figure offered by O’Riordan helped shape the debate:

If one was to bring the street infrastructure up to a condition where no additional maintenance would be required, we would have to spend in today’s dollars $42 million. If we don’t spend sufficiently, that number gets bigger both because of inflation and the degradation of the streets themselves. That’s the number we’re really concerned about and don’t want to get worse – and that doesn’t take into consideration the underground infrastructure. Bear in mind that 65 percent of the city continues to have a combined [water and sewer line].

When considering road construction to add flood protection, he said, “the number I’ve given for street and sidewalk estimates pales in comparison by orders of magnitude.”

There was one, small thing the city could do to ease the burden of uncertainty brought on by citywide road repair work, O’Riordan and Rossi said: Add information about where and when repairs are taking place to the city newsletter, as well as having it online.