The politics of paving
As winter weather ravages the condition of roads across Cranston, the city’s running repaving schedule continues to be a source of contention for residents and elected officials alike.
Infrastructure improvement was not on the agenda at a recent City Council meeting, but the topic came to a head when Ward 3 Councilman Paul Archetto noted that his area has not seen repaving efforts in three consecutive years.
“I have a working, blue-collar ward; we pay taxes like everyone else in the city,” he said. “If we need to spend money, I think, in the long-term, the mayor and the City Council should put aside money for roads.”
In a letter to the Herald, Dick Tomlins took Archetto’s argument one step further. He believes the lack of repaving in Ward 3 is indicative of a larger problem. He says that the method by which the city paves streets is politically motivated.
“This, my dear citizens, is the very worst of politics,” he said.
Tomlins accuses Republican Mayor Allan Fung of ignoring Ward 3 for several reasons, namely that Archetto is a Democrat and that Tomlins ran against him in 2010 and personally lives in Ward 3. He also says that the ward has a growing immigrant population that is less likely to be a strong political force.
“Most are just trying to assimilate and provide for their families. This gives them little time to understand how our system works,” he said.
“Is this fair? Is this what we have to expect from any administration? I say no, and we must reverse this perverse type of politics always and mostly during the next election,” Tomlins added.
But Fung says Tomlins’ assertions are “absolutely ridiculous.”
“A lot just depends on the funding allocations,” he said, adding that he has tried not to go out to bond extensively in order to “keep our debt-ratio low.”
The mayor maintains that his administration has taken politics out of the equation. In 2009 the engineering firm Beta Group, Inc. did an independent inventory of Cranston’s roadways, rating them on a scale of zero to 100. Zero would apply to a dirt road, and 100 would be a perfectly paved road with no drainage or other issues.
“All city streets fall into that rating, and we use that as a guide to select what streets we pave. Under the mayor’s administration, he has de-politicized street paving,” said Chief of Staff Carlos Lopez Estrada.
Lopez called the rating system a “black and white” tool that takes interpretation out of it. In a perfect world, he said streets would be repaved every 20 years, with 5 percent of streets being fixed every year, but he says funds do not allow for that.
Condition is the top factor in the repaving list, but cost comes at a close second.
The cost of a given project could move it down on the list, if the city is working with limited resources. Nick Capezza, the city’s chief engineer, has worked for Cranston for 18 years. He says that Natick Avenue was long a problem for the city, but because of its distance it was pushed to the side.
“We put that off for years because of the cost,” he said. “It comes down to the funding.”
Ultimately, when Natick was repaved from Wilbur Avenue to the West Warwick line, the work was spread out over three years.
Cost depends heavily on what type of paving is done. Director of Public Works Ken Mason explains that there are three types of road reconstruction: adding a new layer of asphalt on top of the existing road, milling off an inch and a half or so of road and then putting on new asphalt, or a total reconstruction, which requires crews to shave down to sub-grade level and build the road back up.
Another factor in choosing roads is where utility companies are working. If Providence Water, National Grid or Kent County Water, for example, is fixing underground pipes, they give the city two options: either the utility would do a sufficient patch job themselves, or they would contribute what they would spend for a patch job to the city’s overhaul of that roadway.
Hope Road is an example of one such project. When Kent County Water tore up that street, they contributed $75,000 for repaving efforts. For a project that cost roughly $170,000 overall, that investment moved Hope Road higher up on the priority list, as the city was saving significant dollars.
“That’s another deciding factor. We don’t care if that’s in Ward 1, 2, 3, 4 or 5,” Lopez said.
That could also impact what wards more often see repaving, though. Much of Ward 4, for example, does not have public water, decreasing their chance of cost sharing from utilities.
Mayor Fung says that the city tries to spread the repaving projects out as much as possible. Redistricting impacted the list of roads that are tentatively scheduled for the start of spring 2013, with roads initially in Ward 3 moving into Ward 2. Archetto says that the city should have anticipated that move and accommodated Ward 3 accordingly.
Fung understands Archetto’s frustration, but noted that if you extend the look back beyond the past three years, Ward 3 received significant funding from federal Community Development Block Grants.
“When I started here in ’95, we spent seven years in Ward 3 with a lot of CDBG money,” Capezza said. “We haven’t ignored it.”
Those federal funds are specifically for low- to moderate-income areas and, therefore, cannot be used citywide. Instead, those monies are concentrated in Wards 1, 2 and 3 and have been cut significantly over the past decade. In FY 08/09 the city was given $1,057,571, compared to FY 13/14, during which the estimated CDBG monies are $842,084.
Fung added that other improvement projects have benefited the third ward, including renovations to Calise, Cooney and Speck Avenue fields and new playgrounds on Dyer Avenue and Stadium School – all of which fell under the purview of the Department of Parks and Recreation.
Archetto believes more opportunities are out there and that the city needs to be aggressive in pursuing grant funding.
“I know there is federal money there, through grants,” he said.
City Council members are able to submit a wish list of sorts to the administration, but if streets are not on the top of the inventory list it is unlikely that the city would consider them. If many calls come in on a certain area, however, there are instances where the squeaky wheel gets the grease.
“If we get a lot of calls from a certain area, Nick goes out to look at it,” Lopez said.
That’s not good enough for Archetto and for many residents who say city infrastructure is not up to snuff.
“All I can attest is that this is the third year that Ward 3 has no roads that will be paved. They need their roads paved,” Archetto said. “We deserve at least one road.”
One road he is concerned with is Laurel Hill Avenue, which Lopez says is on the city’s radar.
“Does Laurel Hill Avenue and the adjacent roads look like a war zone? Yes, but that would probably be our budget for the entire year,” he said. “There was no way we could accommodate him.”
Archetto has suggestions on where those funds could come from. He introduced a resolution that would have taken a third of the $1 million from the sale of the former police station and allocated it across all six wards for repaving. That resolution failed. He is now revisiting the subject and considering a resolution that would allocate money for repaving through the capital budget. Long-term, he thinks that cost savings can be found elsewhere, freeing up money for infrastructure.
“I think consolidation is an avenue,” he said. “I think we should address infrastructure in the city.”