Austin’s water utility, after repairing pipe leaks, is leaving behind temporary road patches at twice the rate that the city’s Public Works Department can make permanent repairs to them, according a stinging audit released this week.
Those lingering asphalt bandages, the audit says, are often uneven to begin with and then deteriorate over time, causing not only uncomfortably bumpy travel but a genuine safety hazard for cars and other vehicles attempting to navigate them.
As of a year ago, the city auditor’s report says, Austin streets had at least 3,800 such temporary patches, some of them in place for up to 18 months despite a requirement in the city code that final repairs occur within 90 days.
It’s unclear how many of those are unsafe, but the audit noted that residents’ complaints to 311 have included reports of “an exposed hole, a pipe sticking out of the road, and a patch that had fallen by 10 inches.” The auditor’s spot check of 10 temporary patches found three were more than a quarter inch above the surrounding road surface and two had degenerated into loose gravel.
The permanent repair of a utility patch in Austin, on average, takes about a year, the audit says. And erasing that backlog would take 3.6 years, according to the 15-page report, even if Austin Water were to stop creating such patches when it repairs underground leaks and line breaks.
But the water department is doing 185 such projects each month, the audit says, even as Public Works does final repairs on an average of just 89. Staffing lies at the heart of the disparity. The utility has 107 employees and 22 crews repairing pipes and laying down rough “cold mix” asphalt patches on the street, while Public Works has 53 workers and four crews coming behind to smooth out the damage with road-ready “hot mix” asphalt.
Richard Mendoza, who has led Public Works since early this year, said his department has taken on the problems in a number of ways, including hiring private crews make some of the repairs. The backlog is now down to about 2,200 lingering patches, Mendoza said Tuesday, and he anticipates being able to catch up before the end of 2018.
In addition, the department was allocated six more employees for patch repairs, a full crew, under the fiscal 2017 city budget and is hiring them now, he said.
“We’re looking at a much more manageable number going forward,” Mendoza said. “No utility cut is good for a street.”
Mendoza also said that Austin Water plans to include final repair of streets in its contracts for regularly scheduled pipe replacement projects. Public Works crews would still need to do that job for emergency utility repairs. He couldn’t say what percentage of utility street cuts are regularly scheduled projects.
The problem isn’t new — a 1998 city audit also showed a street patch backlog. And until the last few months, the to-do list’s length was something of a mystery, the audit says.
“Inconsistent and incomplete data on street-cut work orders prevents the city from knowing the true size of the backlog of temporary utility patches, or how cost-effective Public Works is at performing the repairs,” says the audit, which will be the subject of an Austin City Council committee hearing Wednesday. “As a result, the city cannot be sure that a street-cut repair has been completed or that all repairs are accounted for.”
The city auditor’s review of repair records from both Austin Water and Public Works showed that 11 percent of the time the two city departments showed a differing status — either complete or incomplete — for needed street repairs.
The department’s project tracking systems, Mendoza said, “were not linking up. We did a cleanup of the data.”
Public Works awarded a $1 million contract last June to an outside vendor to make some of the repairs, the audit says. That came on top of the normal $8 million to $10 million it spends annually for this purpose using city employees. Mendoza said another such contract, part of the effort to play catch-up, is in the works.
“However, Public Works cannot determine if the contract is cost-effective as compared to their repair costs,” the audit says. “Data that Public Works collects on the costs of its in-house repairs is incomplete and may not reflect actual labor and equipment expenses.”
Mendoza said this problem is confined to street excavations due to water and wastewater piping. Under city policy, when a street is torn up for underground work by another utility, such as buried electric lines for Austin Energy or cables owned by private telecommunications companies, the contractor must repair the street afterward to a final form based on city standards.
By the numbers
3,684: Temporary road patches on Austin streets in March 2016
2,200: Temporary road patches awaiting repairs now
357 days: Average length of time it takes city crews to replace temporary patch with permanent repair
90 days: Maximum time allowed under city code for such repairs
Source: City auditor’s report and Public Works