Ruts And Potholes: The Future Of Wichita's Worst Streets

May 12, 2015

A sales tax referendum on last November’s ballot would’ve put an estimated $27.8 million dollars towards street repairs in Wichita. The referendum was defeated, but the cracks and potholes remain. KMUW’s Sean Sandefur takes a driving tour of some of the city’s worst roads and has this report…

When you map out the streets that would have received a bit of TLC from the defeated sales tax, you see whole neighborhoods that are crisscrossed with course, uneven asphalt and concrete.

Belmont Street, from Pawnee to Kinkaid in southwest Wichita, is about as bad as it gets.

Pastor Virgil French of Ebenezer Baptist Church has lived in a small house along Belmont for about three years. He’s a big guy, with black-framed glasses and a wide smile.

Pastor Virgil French
Credit Sean Sandefur

“You can just see…there’s just big potholes right there," French says, pointing out through his front door. "I don’t know the last time that road has been paved.”

Directly in front of his home is what looks like a speed bump that someone took a jackhammer to, leaving chunks of road behind. Pastor French says his street gets worse and worse each winter.

“The main streets are nice: Lincoln, Pawnee, Rock Road…but these side streets, they get overlooked,” he says.

He wasn’t aware of November’s sales tax referendum, or that his road would have been repaired as a result of it.

Pastor French says he would’ve supported it.

“In the long run, you’re going to pay the money for the repair on your vehicle,” he explains.

But, it’s too late. The sales tax, which also included funding for drought protection, public transportation, and job creation, was defeated with 62 percent of the vote.

So, what happens to the long list of road repairs?

Joe Pajor is deputy director of Wichita’s Public Works & Utilities.

“That list was a snapshot in time," Pajor says. "If you were to ask us to take another picture today, it would look different than that.”

Joe Pajor, deputy director of Wichita’s Public Works & Utilities
Credit Sean Sandefur

He says if the sales tax were successful, the city would’ve developed a plan for getting hundreds of streets repaired within a five-year timeframe. But without that added revenue, they now have to approach street improvement very differently.

“It’s much, much less expensive to keep a newer street in good condition than it is to rehab one at the end of its life," Pajor says. "So, when we look at how to spend whatever amount of money the (City Council) decides is appropriate to spend on street maintenance each year, we're trying to get the greatest return on investment.”

That means, for the time being, it’s not cost effective to repair Wichita’s worst streets. The city grades their roads like a math quiz, and it’s better to spend money keeping B roads in good shape than it is to completely replace F roads.

That doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll never get to them, but without the estimated $27.8 million from the proposed sales tax, it may be awhile.

“We’re instead saying, over the next 40 years, at different funding levels, with different strategies and different treatments, what does the condition of our pavement look like over the long term?" Pajor asks.

The city council is slowly finding more money for street improvements. A $2 million dollar boost will go into effect this year, giving the total street maintenance team a budget of nearly $11 million. But Pajor says small increases like that aren’t a silver bullet.

“With the funding that we've had historically, and even with the increases that the council has approved for the current year and going forward, there's still not nearly enough money to address the whole 5,000 lane miles in the network,” he says.

Do you live on a street in need of repair? Click here for a comprehensive map of streets that would have been repaired with a successful sales tax. 

Savannah Street, near its intersection with Meridian in southeast Wichita, is like many of the streets on the list: It’s a sore sight.

Driving over it, you get the sense you're on a gravel road, not a paved one. As these streets sit in disrepair, there’s a bigger issue than blown tires—they change the appearance of neighborhoods. There seems to be a correlation between the street and the condition of the homes and apartments alongside it.

"If you’re in the market for buying a home or buying a business and you look at a particular location, you're going to be looking at the general condition of that part of the city," Pajor says. "The street, in particular, can absolutely play a role in people's decision-making.”

Pajor says after years of focusing on major streets like Douglas or Hillside, they’re now looking towards residential streets.

Wichita Mayor Jeff Longwell
Credit Sean Sandefur

But to fix Wichita’s worst streets, more funding is needed. Lots more. And that job is in the hands of city leaders, including newly elected Mayor Jeff Longwell, who spent eight years as a city council member. He gives some insight into how street maintenance fell behind.

“The reality is, we went through the worst recessionary period since the great depression," Longwell says. "And there was no appetite to raise taxes. So it forces us to do some things, that I think, are good.”

Longwell says that a dip in revenue forced the city to tighten its purse strings, putting repairs on hold. But he says the bad times were an opportunity to trim costs at City Hall. They now outsource the city’s lawn care and printing services, which he says saves millions of dollars…dollars they can now put towards street improvements.

Credit Budgets, City of Wichita

“We're going to pave almost 450 lane miles of neighborhood streets this year," Longwell says. "Which the previous year, we were only able to do about 250 miles. We're able to do that for two reasons: We're putting an additional $2 million into our streets program. And we're using new techniques that aren't quite as costly.”

Longwell says an additional $2 million will be again be added to street improvement funding in the next few years. But that still falls short of the estimated $27.8 million dollars that would have gone to streets from the defeated sales tax.

Longwell asks for patience as the search for new revenue continues and says another attempt at a tax increase isn’t off the table. Longwell says a public discussion on how to fund not only street improvements, but the city’s entire infrastructure system will happen soon.