Coming back from the mayor’s State of the City address Thursday I was in an SUV traveling down Cottage Street when we came upon a good sized pot hole.
March is frost heave season in New England so it was not entirely surprising. But there was a good stretch of the street that was rutted up, which I understand from Mayor Jon Mitchell is what happens once you dig up a road and don’t repave the whole area at once.
The last three years, Mitchell has had the city debt finance a million bucks a year for street repair. That’s beyond the $2 million New Bedford received in Chapter 90 money, and additional money for special state projects like the ongoing rebuilds of Route 18 and Union Street.
But suffice it to say it’s an uphill battle with the roads.
New Bedford is not alone.
Over in low-tax Dartmouth, Stackhouse Street has been a mess for years. Maybe that’s because it’s a short-cut street, or maybe it’s because of trucks that travel to the nearby feast grounds. I don’t know. But whatever the reason, the Bliss Corner area deserves the same attention as more affluent parts of town, don’t you think?
Even over in Fairhaven, where the roads are generally pretty good, up and down Adams Street north of Route 6 there’s a long patch where some sort of utility work must have been done and the complete road rebuild will have to wait a bit.
Mitchell says the city has gotten more aggressive with Eversource about its own repairs to the roads it digs up. New Bedford even negotiated a deal where it has the power company pay the city directly the money it would have spent on road repair contractors. The city then uses cheaper contractors to get more bang for the buck.
Even so, there’s a lot of New Bedford roads that are a mess.
Last year, they finally rebuilt the section of County Street from Clasky Common down toward Weld Square. This year, they’ll start on the County section near Nelson Street in the South End and work northward.
The problem is that even though property taxes are going up at a good clip in New Bedford, there’s a lot of other draws on the money.
The biggest money draws, as I’ve written about numerous times, are the pensions and health care budgets for retired city employees.
The mayor has offered the council a plan to solve that problem — giving the city the power to control health care by using the state’s Group Insurance plan when city unions refuse to give up Cadillac benefits. But even as the council has dragged its feet on that solution, and even as the administration has added a million a year for road repair, the council was calling for more on Thursday. Several of the councilors asked to hold the utility companies more accountable or criticized the state for not granting more money. It’s always easy to complain about what somebody else is not doing.
On the same day the councilors requested more money for the roads, Mitchell had already announced he was spending the million a year at his morning State of the City address. Some of the councilors were at the speech.
During the address, Mitchell quoted Highway Superintendent Manny Silva saying that in the coming months the city will be doing more road work than at any time in the 19 years he has worked for New Bedford. That sounds like it’s probably true, but it's also clear that other roads are at the end of a long waiting list.
Whether it’s the mayor pointing out the positive, but not the negative, or the councilor saying more needs to be done without suggesting a viable funding source, the politics of road repair is always with us.
Roads are perhaps the most tangible thing we expect local government to do for us. Yeah, we know the schools and the police and fire cost a lot of money. And yeah, we know that the city has to attract new development to its tax base. But we do want to be able to drive to work without breaking an axle.
But in an era when the cost of living is no longer cheap, the roads being in poor condition is just one more part of modern American life that doesn’t seem to work all that well.
Jack Spillane is the Sunday and editorial page editor of The Standard-Times.