During the April 26 city council meeting the Department of Public Works presented the physical, financial, and geologic challenges the city foresees in upcoming roadway projects and water system analysis investments. This was especially evident during the council’s decision process to expand the design of the East State Street reconstruction project.
The Department of Public Works was the headliner of this council meeting with a brief update on water system hydraulic analysis needs and two lengthy presentations on the East State Street reconstruction project and on the department’s “Pavement Management Program.”
Sal Alfano, from District 2, and Tim Heney, from District 3 — both elected six weeks ago in March — recently displayed their willingness to question the status quo and to use their professional expertise to provide oversight. Alfano, a former builder, and Heney, a longtime local realtor, each raised process questions including how to remove the water system analysis update from the consent agenda, and what specific geologic engineering testing information is needed before final approval of the bond-funded East State Street reconstruction project.
After pulling it from the consent agenda, the council approved amending the water system hydraulic analysis to include developing fire hydrant flow tables and to investigate alternative water pressure reduction systems. This additional analysis, which will cost $25,040 and has a 100% loan forgiveness subsidy, is needed because the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation notified the city that the Dufresne Group’s February 2023 hydraulic analysis that the city submitted was incomplete.
The council approved an expansion to the 2022 original East State Street reconstruction proposal’s design work, to now include sidewalks on both sides, an uphill bike lane on the south side, and retaining walls on the north side. The early projected additional cost with the expansion is $1.7 million beyond the original $7.2 million bond. In addition, sewer and stormwater runoff will be separated from Main Street to the Rialto Bridge, as required by Vermont’s Combined Sewer Overflow Rule. The existing sewer line in East State Street flows into this line. New catch basins, part of this project, will eliminate the sewer odors in this area. The $1.2+ million dollar cost of this portion of the project is federally funded. Both projects could be completed by November 2025.
Councilors Heney and Alfano did not approve of the expansion of the project. Heney pointed out that there is significant clay soil from 100 East State Street up to Bingham Street and possibly beyond. Kurt Motyka, director of DPW agreed that there is a lot of clay soil in this area. Exact cost estimates will be provided to the council by January 2024, prior to bids going out, and will be based on the costs of the project’s design expansion and the engineering studies assessment of the stability of the clay soils in several sections of the project, and therefore the capacity of those areas to handle the load of the expanded roadway additions, according to Motyka.
In response to the public’s repeated frustration with Montpelier roads, directed to councilors privately and at council meetings, Zach Blodgett, deputy director of DPW, provided an in-depth slide presentation on its pavement philosophy and its pavement management program.
The philosophy of the pavement management program, Blodgett said, is to consider streets, sidewalks, signage, utilities, water, stormwater, and sewer as an integrated network. “Building a better network,” he said, not fixing “a series of one-off repairs” is the ultimate goal of the program. Blodgett reviewed tools and treatments to preserve and recycle roadways. “If you do ‘worst street first’ … you stay there. Economically you never get ahead with leveraging your dollars,” he said.
Blodgett also acknowledged that in reality there are bad streets, so “interim maintenance is being talked about.”
The first step in the pavement management program is developing, maintaining, and using the Pavement Condition Index (PCI) completed in 2021 and updating it every three years to guide the budgeting process. The PCI is developed using manual observation, mapping technology, the Paver™ program, and budgeting and asset management programs to analyze the road network, Blodgett said. From that, progress in road conditions and improvements can be done yearly, data-based paving maintenance and repair plans developed, and yearly progress on achieving the plan assessed.
The Department of Public Works recently received a grant to help pay for LIDAR, an automated, laser-driven system for mapping and analyzing pavement conditions. Using both LIDAR and the PCI, Blodgett said he can develop a paving budget and long-term funding plan that meets road needs, establishes and maintains the city’s goals, and is in line with the city capital plan. Blodgett noted that his future paving fund target is $875,000 to $1 million per year to improve and maintain the road network. He stated that “the ideal annual amount to better catch up (on paving) I’d say is a million dollars.” For FY24 the target fund is $875,000, which includes $118,500 for paving. By FY29 the department is planning to spend over $840,000 in paving alone, with a total budget of over $1,061,000 for roadway costs.
Roads have an average lifespan of 12–15 years, according to Blodgett. Councilor Lauren Hierl asked “Why not do a big bond to bring all the roads up to a good level?” Blodgett said bonding for sidewalks and retaining walls makes sense because of their long lifespan. A bond for roads would be paid off at the time that the roads need to be repaired again. “Overall bonding capacity and debt service related to the capital fund” is also a consideration according to Blodgett, and such a large bond project would take five years of sustained work.
“As the state’s capital, bad conditions on our streets are not good,” said Councilor Pelin Kohn. Blodgett agreed that there are risks to vehicles driving on some city streets, specifically Towne Hill, East State, North, Main, State, Memorial Drive, Berlin, and River streets. The roads with the most traffic are the roads that are prioritized for repair according to Blodgett.
In a reversal of past practice, the department will, in extreme cases, such as the section of road on North Street below Hill Head, repair the worst sections of roadway, and will also continue to provide stop-gap measures such as filling in “wheel rutting” in pavement and potholes. City Manager Bill Fraser noted that although Montpelier is not in line for state highway grants because most of the city’s roads are paved, the good news is that the state is replacing 10% of Montpelier’s entire 42-mile network this spring by repaving U.S. Routes 2 and 302.