Unimproving the Past: A Strategy for Street Repair

Published Friday, Nov. 16, 2007 in The Register-Guard.

Before he was an amphitheater, Cuthbert was an urban planner for the city of Eugene. Fred A. Cuthbert delivered a paper to the Round Table Club of Eugene in 1938 that contained a vision for Eugene’s roadways. City staff may want to consider that vision today.

“Most cities have twice as many streets as are either desirable or necessary,” Cuthbert wrote. “Consider the miles of unnecessary paving, the miles of curbing, street drains, sidewalks and sewers. Think of the land area occupied by these needless streets with their unnecessary street maintenance costs.”

Seventy years have brought mounting street maintenance costs since Cuthbert wrote those words. The current backlog, by the city’s estimates, approaches $100 million. And since voters turned down an increase in the local gas tax, officials warn the backlog will only get worse. City Council earlier this year began exploring a myriad of revenue sources to reverse the trend, including a street maintenance fee to be tacked on to everybody’s Eugene Water and Electric bill. (EWEB is understandably unenthused about collecting street money for the city. But EWEB needs Eugene City Council’s cooperation to divest itself of some of its valuable riverfront property, so the negotiations continue.)

Every alternative currently being explored to address street maintenance amounts to “doing more with more” — maintaining more streets with more money. But Cuthbert, and some residents today, would ask the city also to consider doing less with less.

Residents of the Crest Avenue neighborhood in south Eugene have been fighting proposed street improvements, fearing additional commuter traffic will change their neighborhood’s quality of life. Where city staff sees ramshackle, these residents see bucolic.

Cuthbert proposed a plan for the city’s street grid that would make a deliberate distinction between what he called “thoroughfares” and “park lanes.” Regarding the latter, “these street can be narrow, inexpensively surfaced, and need not have sidewalks — free from the noise, danger and smells of through traffic, as no vehicles need to enter unless making deliveries, or calling on the few houses on the street.”

Cuthbert described a street grid “which will satisfactorily separate the movement of vehicular and pedestrian traffic, and fast traffic from slow. At present, traffic races up and down residence streets as each street is also a traffic thoroughfare.”

Travelers through south Eugene experience half of the idea, where 11th, 18th, and 29th Avenues are meant to carry the majority of traffic. We got the thoroughfares Cuthbert envisioned, but not the park lanes.

“Park lane” was not a marketing term in 1938. It was descriptive. It was meant to lead to a park. The land not used for sidewalks and widened streets could be reclaimed for communal purposes. People living on quiet streets will consent to living more closely together. “House the people densely, if necessary, but conserve great areas for recreation.” Was Cuthbert somehow quoting from Eugene’s 1996 Growth Management Study? No, it was from Edward Bennett in “The Significance of the Fine Arts,” published in 1923.

Eugene could become a city where every child can walk or bike to a park without ever crossing a busy street. Eugene residents like parks. The recent success of Madison Meadows speaks strongly to that. But parents hesitate to send their children to neighborhood parks on their own, as “traffic races up and down residence streets.” Well maintained secondary roads have taken us in the wrong direction.

What if we simply refused to improve streets not intended for through traffic? Instead, we pave them, maintain them, improve them, then calm them — incurring expense each time.

A few years ago, the city installed serpentine “traffic calming” obstacles on the street behind my house. My neighbors complained that the short-cut traffic would simply move one block north. Our street likewise deserved to be calmed, they claimed. Speed humps were installed. (Speed “humps” are less draconian than speed “bumps,” I learned.) I called the city to ask about the appropriate procedure to have them removed.

“Removed?” asked an incredulous staff person.

After speaking to three people at city hall, it was determined that there was no such procedure. The city knows how to install traffic calming devices; then update, repair, beautify and maintain them. But the city has no known expertise in removing them.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) is vice president of the Round Table Club of Eugene, a “town-gown” organization which has met monthly since its inception in 1911. Papers given by members are archived at the UO Knight Library. Readers may review and comment on past and future columns at his blog, right here.