Cedar Rapids residents want more progress on repairing local streets, even as Paving for Progress makes headway on repairing roads.
Street repairs ranked above public safety, flood control, taxes and job creation in the 2020 National Community Survey, with 33 percent of a sample of 744 Cedar Rapids residents identifying roads as their No. 1 issue facing the city.
The issue consistently has risen to the top of the list across three iterations of the survey, which was first administered in 2016 — two years after the city’s voter-approved penny sales tax-funded Paving for Progress program began to put about $18 million per year toward street reconstruction and maintenance.
Residents reported split views of the city’s progress on repairing roads, with 5 percent ranking Cedar Rapids’ efforts as excellent, 30 percent as good and 35 percent as fair, and 29 percent rating the city’s progress as poor.
Cedar Rapids contracted with National Research Center to participate in the survey.
Public Works Director Jen Winter said residents’ opinions on the status of street repairs could be divided because some residents may regularly travel residential or high-traffic commercial areas where there’s work being done, while others may not travel routes that take them on roads being worked on using Paving for Progress funds.
Still work to be done
The city compiles annual reports and did an overarching five-year report in 2018 to keep residents up to date on how revenue from the local-option sales tax, or LOST, is funding street improvements.
“I hope that the citizens, the residents and the businesses of Cedar Rapids are all seeing progress and what’s being able to be done, but also realize that there are still some needs out there,” Winter said.
Paving for Progress Manager Doug Wilson said the city estimated it would take $500 million, or $50 million annually, over the course of the 10-year program to get roads to good or better condition.
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This means the LOST revenue the city typically receives to fund street repair projects in a given year falls more than $30 million short of what Cedar Rapids would need annually to fully fund the work. But it’s still more than the $5.5 million the city used to spend fixing roads annually before the program existed.
He said about 70 miles of the city’s roads have been repaved through the repair initiative, which is in its seventh construction season and is slated to fix 150 miles of Cedar Rapids streets through the 10-year program.
The city has more than 600 miles of streets.
By keeping up with street maintenance before a road’s condition deteriorates, he said the city saves money in the long run.
Using data on information such as travel and conditions, the city updates its plan on which roads to prioritize repairing every two years to account for streets that need complete reconstruction as well as those that need some more minor rehabilitation to maintain.
“That’s part of the reason why we have to do these streets that may not look quite as bad as the other street, but it’s important that we extend the life of that street,” Wilson said.
City Council member Scott Overland, who sits on the council’s Infrastructure Committee, said he considered the survey results a function of the money that the city is able to put toward street repairs annually, given that Paving for Progress was intended to be a pay-a-you-go program.
“From a city standpoint, it makes sense that it’s still a concern, but at the same time, I think we’ve put it out there that … financially, we can’t do $50 million a year on streets without raising taxes, and people don’t usually get too excited about raising taxes,” Overland said.
The city would need to ask voters in 2023 to extend the LOST — which went into effect July 1, 2014, and expires June 30, 2024 — to add another 10 years to the program.
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Overland said he favors continuing the voter-backed program to keep funding road construction and maintenance to prevent “backsliding” on road conditions.
He noted it also helps the city avoid racking up debt, as Cedar Rapids uses the 1-cent sales tax to solely fund street repairs.
“I think it’s kind of a two-edged sword,” Overland said. “If it’s voted down, then the streets start sliding back the other direction or we have to use internal money to work on streets like we used to and have to issue debt in order to do it, which means property taxpayers are going to have to pay the interest on the principal.”
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