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July 14, 2011 |

Our readers weigh in on the metro's Worst Roads


Cityview reader, Mitchell Little, nominated Watrous Avenue (stretching from Southeast 14th to Fleur Drive) as one of the metro's worst roads. After we drove it, we can see why. The potholes are sporadic and the lanes are narrow, so when you're traveling bumper to bumper, they sneak up on you and there seems to be no way of avoiding them. It is not on the city's list for upcoming repair.

by Amber Williams


When "send us your shitty road submissions…" appeared on the Cityview Facebook page, within minutes more than a dozen candidates for the "metro's worst roads" were nominated.

Without a doubt, Des Moines' south side streets received the most votes by our Facebook fans. But the south side isn't the only part of the metro with cracks and crumbles in the pavement. Along with Southwest 9th and Watrous Streets, 86th Street near Aurora Avenue in Urbandale and the privately-owned Sandpiper Drive in West Des Moines were also nominated, as well as Keo Way and 9th Street downtown.

"Thirty-first Street between Grand and Ingersoll. Surprisingly bad shape," wrote John Cimalglia, of Des Moines. "Watrous, from Southeast 14th all the way to Fleur Drive," commented Mitchell Little.

"Hubbell on the east side! Makes my CD skip every time," wrote Ana Isabel Miranda. "Living on the east side of Des Moines — or even visiting town for the Iowa State Fair — means we need to make use of Hubbell Avenue at one point. I live near that avenue and driving to work, doing shopping, going to the library or just visiting friends and living on the clock usually makes me wish there could be some work done to it despite all the benefits Hubbell Avenue has to offer to residents and visitors.

"I love how convenient it is. It takes me almost everywhere I need to go, but slowing down to reduce the impact of the strike is no fun," she continued.

"There has been an increase in new businesses opening on this side of town, and that is just wonderful, but in order to maintain a stable flow of transit and business, I believe that we need more attractive and practical roads," she said, (specifically citing the westbound section passing Guthrie and University Avenues and to the brick segment that joins Hubbell Avenue and Des Moines Street).

"The damage is increasing as cars continue to transit on it," she said. "Hubbell Avenue, with its big and deep pot holes on multiple spots and its worn out patches, makes the ride a whole adventure for me and for my passengers."

Nineteenth Street north of Forest Avenue was a necessary submission by reader Neola MacDonell. It's also on the city's radar, scheduled for the HMA overlay program this year.

Though Miranda's "adventure" down Hubbell can be cantankerous, she also has concerns for the rough ride's effect on her car, including its suspension, rims and tires, she said, "not to mention that it is a potential cause for an accident if trying to skip the damaged areas," she added.

Jordan Josephsen, of Des Moines, typically uses a scooter to get around town, which makes pesky potholes more than just annoying and hard on his ride, but dangerous, specifically eastbound Grand Avenue from 42nd Street to downtown, he said.

"I ride on that road at least two times a day on the way to work and on the way home from work," he wrote in an email. "Bumpy roads and excessive (or any at all) potholes aren't just annoying, but it's a matter of safety for me. This is probably the same case for bicycles."

It is, according to Greg Rassmussen, owner of Rassmussen Bike Shop in West Des Moines.

"You have to replace a tube or a tire because it pinches them, and they blow up," Rassmussen explained. "If their tires are running low, they can bend the rim and then have to replace the wheel. We replace a lot of tubes early in the morning. I would say probably at least half a dozen a week pinched flat or ones caused by something like that."

However, Rasmussen said it's difficult to pinpoint exactly how many bike repairs he makes as a result of bad roads, unless the customer specifically comes in with road rash or complaining about hitting a wicked pothole or crack in the street.

What's the city doing about it?

Some of the waning streets around town don't even belong to the city and aren't the city's responsibility, said public works director Bill Stowe. Two of the 20 suggestions made by Cityview Facebook fans, in fact, were privately-owned streets: Sandpiper Drive in West Des Moines, and Thayer Street that leads to the Fort Des Moines Correctional Facility, are both private drives with dire needs.

"If it's a really, really bad street — one that's never been paved or one we've never owned — the responsibility for maintenance is assessed to the property owner," Stowe said.

Stowe admits, though, that some Des Moines city streets are in constant need of repair, and the challenge of keeping up with the job can be overwhelming, especially on a tight budget. Almost all street repair and maintenance (including bridges, curbs and medians) comes from road use taxes. So "it's a trade off," he said — rougher roads or higher taxes?

"We don't want to keep pouring money in, but some things are probably worth paying a little more for," he said.

The middle of the road is mostly OK, but it's the areas where you actually have to drive your car that need work on 48th Street, especially along the curbs and gutters. This street made the list immediately by one Cityview fan, and it's slated for new concrete cement curbs and medians by the Public Works Deparment this year, too.

With two rivers and a railway system, Des Moines has a lot of bridges, which are expensive to maintain, he said. But it makes sense, for the sake of public safety, that such a large chunk of the roads funds go toward keeping city bridges up to par. Also, he said some of Des Moines' inner city streets are more than 100 years old with layers of paving over brick in sections.

"It's just like your body — as you get older, you need more repairs," Stowe said. "And the maintenance costs of older streets are significantly larger than newer ones.

"We're fighting among ourselves for scarce resources," he said. "We have 2,400 land miles in Des Moines proper. We don't have a budget big enough to make the meaningful improvements we need."

The street maintenance mission

Although it's the mission of the public works department to "keep all city streets and alleys in good repair and serviceable condition while preserving street surfaces to avoid more costly reconstruction," the street maintenance division crew members can't be everywhere in the city at once. That's why Stowe and his department welcome and encourage public input.

Three primary elements are considered when the public works department prioritizes its road work: traffic flow, cost to repair and most need. So dead-end streets and rarely-used alleyways and back roads admittedly don't take the attention away from high-traffic roads such as University Avenue, Fleur Drive and 63rd Street. They are typically the most costly roads in Des Moines due to truck traffic, weather and soils around the street, Stowe said.

"We hire a contract truck to drive all the miles of city streets with a pavement sensor," Stowe explained. "That data is collected, and then we go to where the roughest streets are, compare that to how much money we have and figure out which ones will have the best return."

The city also considers which roads have the highest number of call-ins from the public. The roads department seeks public input at the city website, http://www.dmgov.gov. Stowe said they keep an electronic record of all calls made to the hotline, and those requests drive much of the road repair schedule.

"We get about 50,000 calls a year," he estimated, naming Hickman Road, Grand Avenue, Urbandale Avenue, Williams Boulevard and University Avenue as the "major arterial roads that come to mind because they have more emphasis of high speed traffic."

"It's about moving people safely in numbers," Stowe advised.

Ninth Street received a few nominations by Cityview readers as one of the metro's worst roads, especially southbound from Keo Way.

The city has already mapped out its plans for hundreds of road repair projects to occur between this past spring to June 2012. The hot mix asphalt (HMA) overlay program includes two of the suggestions on our list: 19th Street from Forest Avenue to Clark Street and Keo Way, southbound from 9th to 12th Streets. This year's concrete/cement curb and median program includes three from our fans' list: Southwest 12th Street and two sections of 48th Street.

The Southwest side is getting some love from the city this summer, too, which might appease Chelsea Mayfield's nomination for "a lot of the southside — both southeast and southwest."

Two from our list are slated for the concrete pavement restoration program this summer: Southwest 62nd Street, from Tonka to Railroad Avenue, and Southwest Leland Avenue from Highway 28 to Southwest 63rd Street. And Southwest 1st and 11th Streets are both in line for the slurry seal coat resurfacing program, according to the 2011 Street Improvement and Maintenance Programs report available to view on the city website.

Following the winter season, the street maintenance division of the public works focuses much of its time on pothole repairs. The city asks for public input and recommendations via the 24/7 call center at 283-4950.

"We don't have perfect knowledge of the streets, and it certainly isn't a perfect process," Stowe said. "We're treading water, but we're not getting to shore. And we continue to see streets deteriorate and an infrastructure crisis in this country due to underfunding." CV