Wear: And the finalists for roughest roads in Austin are …

Dec 01, 2017
Jay Janner/Austin American-Statesman
A car's right front tire bounces off West 24th Street after hitting a raised manhole cover at Windsor Road on Sunday December 3, 2017.

I asked for roadway nightmares, and you responded like a dream.

Three weeks ago in this column I wrote about a pothole survey done by a local law firm (which, to be clear, overwhelmingly listed pavement pockmarks long since patched by the city of Austin), and I asked readers through our Austin Answered project to tell me about bad pavement they’d encountered around the area. To stir the pot, I recounted being jolted by a rippled section of West 24th Street west of Lamar Boulevard.

Well, I heard from about three dozen of you — thanks — and have since visited each of the spots listed in your emails and rated them. At least six of you, by the way, mentioned that waffled West 24th section, and a couple said it had been around for quite a while. The city really ought to jump on that one. As you will see below, they told me that would.

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This pavement judging was, of course, a highly subjective and unscientific affair, applying a 1-to-10 system of my own devising. The city Public Works Department has their own, which I’ll go into below. But here’s mine:

1=Smooooooth

2=Nice

3=Pretty good

4=Hmm….

5=Really could be better

6=Well, that was a little slice of heaven …

7=Whoa, what was that?

8=Call 311

9=Call 311, now!

10=Call 911.

First of all, I didn’t award any 10’s. Perhaps I’m just an old softy. Anyway, I didn’t see anything that appeared to be sufficiently concussive to merit top of scale.

What was surprising, though, was how many 3s, 4s and 5s I found. Some of you apparently have lofty standards or a short fuse when it comes to as-faults. Pavement rage, as it were.

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The city Public Works Department has its own standards, of course, street condition guidelines grounded in decades of civil engineering. According to the department’s 2016 annual report, 78 percent of what was then 7,663 lane-miles of pavement in Austin were in “satisfactory” condition, leaving 22 percent “unsatisfactory.”

No shades there, just a binary, good enough or not.

But in the 2017-18 city budget, city officials gave letter grades to 7,869 lane miles: 475 lane miles got an “A,” 2,874 merited a “B,” 2,474 got a “C,” 1,062 were grade “D,” and 984 lane miles were slapped with an “F.” Just like in school, there is no “E” grade.

So, about 74 percent of the city’s streets got a passing grade. Officials with Public Works told me that it used consultants to rate pavement conditions, looking at half of the system each year.

For what it’s worth, 98 percent of the city’s 450 bridges were rated fair or better, with 2 percent poor. You should know, by the way, that this accounting of street and bridge conditions does not include highways on the Texas Department of Transportation state system such as Interstate 35, MoPac Boulevard, U.S. 290 and U.S. 183. TxDOT does its own rating of its system roads.

But as it happens, none of the road problems you reported were on the TxDOT system. All were city streets, plus one in Wells Branch just outside the Austin city limit.

Here are my bottom 10, starting with the very worst:

• West 24th, just east of Windsor Road: Yes, still the champ. Just a very bad spot to have big ripples, with people accelerating up a curving hill westbound, on a thin four-lane section. I gave it a 9.

• Summit Drive at Wells Branch Parkway: Also a 9. People come down a decent hill to Wells Branch, only to hit a prodigious dip right at the intersection. The evidence of this can be seen in a series of deep gouges in the pavement on both the southbound and northbound sides of Summit, apparently carved by the undercarriages of vehicles. That intersection is in unincorporated Travis County, not the city of Austin. Travis County road officials told me the dipping section remains the responsibility of a developer who years ago built Summit Drive.

A driver on Summit Drive hits a dip while crossing Wells Branch Parkway on Sunday December 3, 2017. Photo: Jay Janner/Austin American-Statesman

• Wethersfield Drive: This one’s an 8, but mostly because it is off the beaten path. Well, actually, it looks thoroughly beaten, with a series of ripples, cracks and a prominent manhole cover rising several inches above the pavement. Extra points for having speed humps installed at one point, presumably because people were using it as a cut-through from Enfield Road to Hartford Road.

A raised manhole cover on Wethersfield Road on Sunday December 3, 2017. Photo: Jay Janner/Austin American-Statesman

• Speaking of Hartford RoadThe section from north of Windsor to Ethridge Avenue has long been an axle test, with a series of swells and dips. I have it an 8 as well.

Irregular lines on a bumpy section of Hartford Road north of Windsor Road on Sunday December 3, 2017. Photo: Jay Janner/Austin American-Statesman

• West 21st Street, just west of the Drag: An impressive double pothole — definitely an 8 — embedded within what appears to be a former repair. Austin Public Works officials told me a major part of their job is following behind underground utility repair jobs and fixing what are often slapdash (my word, not theirs) pavement patches. This could be what happened here.

A double pothole on West 21st Street at Guadalupe Street on Sunday December 3, 2017. Photo: Jay Janner/Austin American-Statesman

• Exposition Boulevard north of Northwood RoadThis double dip in the southbound lane can provide a real jolt — it rocked me about a month ago — because people often get up to 35 mph or more going downhill here on what has become a commuter alternative to MoPac Boulevard. An 8, easy.

• Summit Road, south of East Riverside Drive: Yes, another Summit, another bad road on a hill. This small neighborhood street, also used as a cut-through (from Riverside to Woodland Avenue, a neighbor told me), is an obstacle course of cracks, patches and a mini-ravine down the middle. Another 8.

• Springdale Road between Manor Road and Rogge Lane: Very ripply on this prime East Austin artery. Road building, and maintenance, has always been difficult over the clay soils in Austin’s eastern half. I rated it a 7.

• North Hills Drive west of Balcones Drive: I also gave this one a 7. It has a lot of bumps and slumps that make it something of a free carnival ride for a few blocks.

• West 7th Street at Lavaca Street: An impressive pothole, almost a swale, on the east side of the intersection. People accelerating through the broad cross street can experience quite a snap here. People like me. It earned a 7.

Dave Magana, the city engineer, and Molly Ritter, who manages infrastructure operations for Austin Public Works, told me that the city applied new surfaces to 8.1 percent of the city’s streets this past fiscal year. At that rate, every inch of city pavement would get a new asphalt coat every 12 years or so. And the department tries to respond to all reports of bad pavement — from 311, phone calls or even reporters — within a few days.

That includes the bad spots listed above, they said.

They cautioned that actual repairs are subject to available money, and that there is a sort of triage process to determine which ones need the quickest attention. We’ll see what happens, and when, with these Terrible 10.