City Council president Ben Gray can’t escape potholes. He hits them when he’s driving near 24th and Lake Streets and downtown, and he hears about them at church, school and everywhere else in his north Omaha district.
Gray and other council members had already heard about street problems before the weather finally warmed enough to let road crews get to work patching things up. Last month was the snowiest February on record in Omaha, capping off one of the snowiest winters in recent memory.
The Public Works Department may take longer than usual to patch things up, officials say, given the number of patches needed. The city faces so many reports that leaders turned to private contractors for additional patching.
Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert is hearing enough heat on potholes that she held a press briefing about them Monday afternoon. Her telephone and online portals to report problems have been buzzing for weeks.
The city is spending more on street resurfacing in recent years, from less than $4 million in 2006 to more than $18 million last year.
City streets in older parts of Millard, Elkhorn, central and north and South Omaha are aging, and those older streets show more signs of wear than most of the newer ones, Gray said. Councilman Pete Festersen said he can't wait to see a bumpy stretch of Underwood Avenue resurfaced this year.
Newer parts of the city are facing pothole problems, too. Councilman Brinker Harding is hearing a number of complaints from constituents in his west Omaha district. The stretch of 144th Street the city closed is an unusual example, but one of several.
"I’m embarrassed about the streets in this city," said Omaha Councilman Vinny Palermo, who used to work on a Public Works road crew. He said he's hearing from upset friends, family and constituents in his South Omaha district.
Harding and others say it is too soon to know what the city should do in the long term. He said he needs to hear more from Public Works and the mayor about the condition of the streets and from engineers about what fixes might help.
Palermo said that for now, the city needs to listen to its front-line workers and hire more help to patch potholes and clear snow. The city budget already includes enough funds to hire an additional asphalt crew in each district, Palermo said, but the city can't get people to take the jobs.
That leaves them a handful of options, he said, including addressing union concerns about how employees are managed and paying more. Crews could patch more problems year-round if they were allowed, Palermo said.
Stothert said the city was studying pay for city employees, including in the Public Works Department, and said it would compare pay with other cities. But, she said, some of these troubles come down to a tough job not everyone can do.
Festersen, who represents parts of central Omaha, said he agrees that pothole contractors offer a temporary solution to a Public Works staffing problem that the city must address.
He said he would like to see the city come up with another source of funding for the almost $10 million a year it spends on city streetlights and devote that money to repairing streets.
Festersen said he continues to support spending more on street resurfacing. He would also like to see more investment in public transit.
Stothert, like mayors before her, has said she inherited a problem five decades in the making.
Gray agreed that it’s not her fault but said more must be done.
Part of why Omahans are dealing with pock-marked roads, Gray said, is because the city has yet to settle on a long-term plan for how to catch up on hundreds of millions of dollars in backlogged street resurfacing and maintenance. Unless the city “gets serious” about street resurfacing, he said, conditions will get worse.
“We have allowed ourselves as a city, state and nation to allow our infrastructure to crumble,” Gray said.
That means more than adding new projects to a capital improvement plan Stothert and other mayors have touted as evidence of progress on streets, he said.
The city can’t afford to keep cutting property tax rates when local property valuations increase, not when the city has so many needs to address, he said. The city has cut property tax rates twice under Stothert, in 2015 and 2017.
“Those rate cuts, the benefit to most people is a couple more Happy Meals,” Gray said. “But that would’ve been $3 million to $3.5 million per year toward streets.”
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Harding said he’s open to almost anything that would improve street performance, including the possibility that the city might need to work with its contractors to find a more durable mix for street resurfacing that is more resilient to the region’s cycles of freeze and thaw.
The key, Harding said, is to get enough information to weigh what’s needed after what has been a horrible winter for patched streets. The city absorbed snowfall totals almost double the norm, followed by tremendous cold, he said. It’s too soon to tell if it’s a bad year or part of a trend.
The City Council worked with the Mayor’s Office in recent weeks to hire former Sen. David Karnes, Re-Neb., to help lobby for the city’s needs in Washington, D.C. The Mayor's Office recently told City Council members that Karnes' first priority would be addressing infrastructure needs.
Some constituents tell Gray that the city needs to stop worrying about the riverfront and spend that money on roads. Gray understands the feeling but is quick to explain that the riverfront project is being done with primarily private funds. Donors don’t do roads, he said.
That’s the city’s responsibility, he said. Ultimately, he added, “you’re gonna get what you pay for.”