Dennis Lutz has a simple approach to road maintenance: some science, some art and some learning along the way.
It’s an attitude the public works director has built over more than 30 years overseeing the complicated fight against degeneration of the town’s roadways – a juggling act reactive to weather and reliant on funding in which pesky potholes riddle even the best laid plans.
And perhaps in no other job in municipal government does the perception of success play out so visibly, with most forming an opinion of the department’s performance by looking no further than the health of the road outside their front door.
So if Lutz has learned anything over the last three decades, it’s the inevitable fact road repair will always leave winners and losers – at least in the short term.
“There’s no perfect answer,” he said. “You’re going to make mistakes in this process.” So how does he decide what roads to pave each year? The answer is more complicated than you might expect.
Before each paving season, Lutz must decide how to divvy up funding for the more than 50 miles of roads in the town, a total that excludes the 23 miles of gravel road.
Under the recently approved budget for fiscal year 2020, Lutz expects to have somewhere between $525,000 and $595,000 to spend on repaving efforts, depending on pricing and how much money can be used out of the current fiscal year budget, which ends in June.
The repaving funds include an additional $63,000 thanks to a Town Meeting Day request from resident Henry Gabert, who helped convince voters to raise the town’s overall budget by $100,000 and asked that the money be used to repave more roads. The selectboard agreed earlier this month to contribute some of Gabert’s request to the village, since residents there also pay into the town’s highway budget.
To help him decide where to repave, Lutz uses a management plan published by the department every three to five years. The plan ranks the town’s roads on a tool known as the Pavement Condition Index, or PCI, which essentially grades the road on a scale of one to 100 by taking stock of every blemish – cracks, potholes, ruts and so on.
The town’s last management plan was published in 2014, though representatives from the town, village and the Chittenden Regional Planning Commission last year walked each section of the roads, about 260 in total, year to compile new data for 2019.
The new data shows 15 road sections in the town are considered failing – receiving a 10 or below on the PCI scale – while 18 more fall below a rating of 25, earning the designation of serious. There’s also 64 sections in either very poor or poor condition, with the rest, about 160 sections, in fair, satisfactory or good condition.
Handed this four-page list, a layperson might assume the best way to approach road repair is to start with the worst roads and work from there. But these roads often need a complete rebuild, which can cost six to seven times more than less robust fixes needed to repair roads in better condition, Lutz said.
Take Old Stage Road, for example. Four sections spanning about a mile and a half earned failed or serious designations under the most recent PCI survey, and Lutz said a bad winter has exacerbated the issue to the point where the town has received a handful of insurance claims this season from residents who damaged their vehicles driving on the road.
Lutz didn’t expect those insurance claims would be successful since complainants must show the town was negligent in at least trying to address the problems. But he said they have shown the town can’t afford to wait another year to fix the road, even though a year delay would increase its chances of receiving a grant to offset some of the cost, and Lutz now expects to spend about $211,000 on Old Stage Road alone.
Therein lies the challenge: The worst roads cost the most to fix, and even if the town contributed its entire repaving budget toward these roads, it could only pave a few each year. Dozens of other roads, meanwhile, would continue to worsen.
That’s why Lutz tries to contribute most of the town’s annual paving allocation toward cheaper fixes and get the biggest bang for the buck. He walks over to a whiteboard in his office and draws a line graph to explain the strategy.
The vertical side of the graph shows a road’s quality, while the horizontal side shows its lifespan. New roads start in the upper left corner and gradually fall over time, resulting in a downward slope showing an average life cycle of about 15 years.
“The ideal way to do it is to let these go to hell,” Lutz said, pointing to the end of the graph, where the worst roads reside. “It’s costing you so much to do them, let them fail,” and instead put that money toward roads in better condition, extending their life cycle by five to 10 years.
Then, he said, the town can seek grants and use funds put away in the capital budget to tackle roads with bigger price tags.
He said the same utilitarian approach must be applied when deciding between roads in similar states of disrepair. When faced with a road with 10 houses versus one like Susie Wilson Road that shuttles thousands of vehicles a day, Lutz said he must make the most cost-effective decision for the town.
“Am I going to spend a ton of money for 10 houses?” he asked. “I know that’s hard and cruel, but am I going to spend that on this or am I going to go back and try to catch … some of the worse ones that have high traffic.”
Other factors play into his decision-making process, too, like whether roads have any underground utilities in need of repair. And he must often modify his plans to account for winter’s impact on certain roads.
But like any other municipal department, Lutz said his most limiting factor will always be funding. So when he was asked on Town Meeting Day whether the town is putting away enough money to address its roads, he acknowledged it’s a good question, one for which he doesn’t have a good answer – for now.
That could soon change thanks to the CCRPC, which is helping the town to fine-tune a database that will show how much it would cost to repair each of the 200-plus sections of road on the 2019 list. Lutz said the selectboard could use the database to decide what is the preferred road quality average – say 55 or 60 on the PCI index. Lutz said he could then come up with a yearly funding requirement that would allow the town to meet that standard.
If the result of Gabert’s request is any indication, there’s at least some appetite among residents to contribute more money toward repaving their roads. The question that now remains is just how much more they might be asked to pay moving forward.
“Let’s find out: Are we really in the ballpark, or are we out of it?” Lutz asked of the town’s current funding. “And if we’re out of it, how do we go to the board and taxpayers and say, ‘Hey, we need a lot more money?’”