Election season is pothole season for Houston
Though northern cities often have annual pothole seasons following the spring thaw, Houston’s typically comes around just in time for mayoral elections.
Mayor Sylvester Turner on Monday encouraged residents to report potholes, citing a lower number of calls to 311 compared to 2016, when he committed to Houston Public Works employees filling potholes identified by residents within one business day.
“We are consistently hitting our target,” Turner said, while conceding fewer people are calling in pothole complaints. “That amazing response is because people called into 311 and city crews took care of the problem then and there. Yes, the numbers are lower but we are fulfilling our promise.”
The press conference was an attempt to resurrect interest in his administration’s pothole program, Turner said, as well as challenge Public Works to double the number of long-term street panel replacements it conducts each year. He deflected questions about whether the goal also was to respond to criticism from media reports and mayoral challenger Bill King, who has argued the city is failing to address worsening street conditions.
“Houstonians shouldn’t have to call the city to report potholes, because a good manager would be proactively monitoring the condition of the streets and prioritizing the worst areas,” King said in an emailed statement.
The only other announced mayoral campaign, that of lawyer Tony Buzbee, did not respond to a request for comment.
Houston’s streets long have been a point of contention for drivers and politicians, with potholes assuming the most outsized role in the discussion. Streets in many neighborhoods, especially older parts of the city where roadways have not been widened or rebuilt in decades.
“When I have friends come in from Dallas, it is embarrassing,” said Ted Whitehouse, 49, who lives in a townhome in the Fourth Ward area, just west of downtown. “They ask about the streets: ‘What’s wrong with them?,’ ‘Why aren’t they fixed yet?’”
Turner turned the city staff’s attention to streets shortly after he took office. In January 2016, he announced that potholes reported by residents would be addressed by the following day. The announcement led to a spike in reports and repairs, though the number of citizen-reported potholes returned by May to around the same number monthly, around 500. By the end of 2016, the number of potholes reported to 311 had reached 9,977. Reports, however, fell sharply from there, to 4,961 in 2017, and 5,509 last year.
Most reports of potholes, however, do not lead to crews actually filling a pothole. Of the roughly 20,000 potholes reported since Turner’s promise to fill them in one business day, around 7,500 led to a pothole being filled. That is because reports often were considered duplicates or the pothole in question was determined to be another problem with the street that tar and asphalt would not solve.
Citizen-spotted potholes, meanwhile, are only a fraction of the ones Houston crews fill. Most potholes filled by Public Works are filled because crews spot them, often on their way to other potholes. Public Works Director Carol Haddock said crews are instructed to fill potholes they see around the ones called in, rather than just drive past them while they are in the vicinity.
That has led to positive results in some neighborhoods, said District C Councilwoman Ellen Cohen, whose district is made up of some of the city’s oldest neighborhoods.
“That’s why we want people to call in, because when they call in, they are repaired around it,” she said.
In 2018, however, the number of proactively filled potholes — those not reported via 311 — dipped dramatically. During 2017, crews filled 63,657 potholes. For 2018, the unconfirmed total was about 45,000. Haddock said some of the decline is the result of success in addressing potholes in the previous two years, combined with a greater focus on more substantive street repairs.
Still, critics of city leadership point to 2018 as a banner year for subpar progress. King noted street spending from Houston’s capital improvement program, which fell to $96.6 million last year, the first time in four years investment in roads dipped below $100 million. King also said in a blog post that Houston is using less asphalt, about 13,000 tons in 2018, a drop of 22 percent compared to year prior to Turner taking office.
Drivers often are as divided on politicians on the conditions of Houston’s streets. Walking downtown at lunchtime Monday, Ruth Stanford, 50, said she believes that since heavy rains on Memorial Day 2016, streets have improved, mostly because of major repairs such as the rebuilding of Shepherd Drive near her home south of River Oaks.
Walking with her, Cathy Rivas, 55, disagreed. She said her commute through Westchase to her home is as bumpy as ever.
“I’m not sure the streets in my neighborhood are worse, but they certainly are not any better,” she said.