Our Streets Need a Hole Solution

Published Friday, May 9, 2008 in The Register-Guard.

Potholes. Everybody’s talking about potholes. When Jim Torrey launched his campaign to unseat Mayor Kitty Piercy, his opening salvo concerned potholes and police, in that order. City Manager Jon Ruiz has identified potholes as a top priority. Even the comics page is not immune. Eugene cartoonist Jan Eliot had her “Stone Soup” characters enduring potholes last week.

A pothole is defined as “a bowl-shaped hole caused by localized disintegration of the pavement surface.” But our potholes have taken on a life of their own. They’re alive and they’re out to get us.

It all started when Ed Astor couldn’t unload the Woolworth building downtown. So the dilapidated building was removed, leaving an unsightly pit. People complained about the “message” being sent by the pit, but (properly fenced off) it broke no laws, it was privately owned, and it was now “shovel-ready” for a new building.

The city of Eugene followed and gave us a second pit, so the first one wouldn’t be lonely. The Sears building across from the library had to come down, and it was cheaper to have the contractor finish the job down to the basement, rather than filling the space temporarily until new construction was ready to begin.

Two downtown pits, just blocks from each other. We had to know they’d eventually meet.

They found a secluded spot inside the Downtown Athletic Club for a tryst. It seemed a victimless crime. Until thousands of spawn appeared all around the town. Little mouths to feed, but without bodies. Hungry holes with hard lips and gravelly tongues. Crying for attention. Abandoned asphalt children. Opening wider and wider. Snapping at anything that comes near. They’re growing, hoping one day to move to the sort of gated communities favored by their parents.

Of course we know this isn’t really true. Those two pits never could have gotten past the front desk check-in at the DAC.

But there’s equal danger in being too logical about the problem. Just as city staff saved money on the Sears demolition but created an icon for downtown blight, so with street repairs.

A pothole is a symptom of an underlying structural problem. Filling a pothole ignores the cause, which means another pothole will quickly take its place. Filling potholes is like prescribing lip balm to a herpes patient.

In the long run, it’s cheaper to rebuild a road completely than to constantly repair it. But there’s more to the economic equation than physics. Consider also the softer science of sociology and the darker sciences of politics and public relations.

In 1982, James Q. Wilson and George Kelling published “Broken Windows” in The Atlantic Magazine. These criminologists argued convincingly that it’s not genuinely cost-effective to allow a broken window to go unrepaired in an abandoned building, because the message sent attracts more broken windows and it disempowers the neighbors, whose windows may be next. “If disorder goes unchecked, a vicious cycle begins. First, it kindles a fear of crime among residents, who respond by staying behind locked doors. Their involvement in the neighborhood declines; people begin to ignore rowdy and threatening behavior in public. They cease to exercise social regulation over little things like litter on the street, loitering strangers, or truant schoolchildren. When law-abiding eyes stop watching the streets, the social order breaks down and criminals move in.”

Later, their theory was applied effectively to graffiti. It’s not cheaper to wait until a wall is completely covered with graffiti before repainting it. It’s now accepted that it’s best to paint over graffiti as soon as it appears.

Applied to potholes, the analogy is not perfect. The street divots are not really little miscreants, looking for trouble. But the dynamic of a dispirited citizenry definitely applies, especially if one solution to our decaying infrastructure is to ask voters to increase funding.

Citizens don’t want a physics lesson while they wait for their car’s front end to be realigned. Again. They want confidence that their government is paying attention. Every pot hole has become a gap not only in pavement, but also in public trust.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) is a marketing, media and management consultant for small and civic-minded businesses. He blogs right here, where he posts four potential column ideas each Monday, allowing readers to preview and vote for their favorite idea.