March 11, 2020

Contemplating Continued Progress on Streets and Drainage

By the early 1980s, Bellaire’s original, post-war era infrastructure was reaching the end of its useful life and in serious need of attention.  At that time and in the years that followed, the City undertook individual maintenance and rehabilitation projects as annual budgets would allow, but the available cash on hand was nowhere near enough to keep up with the demand.  Having allowed conditions to deteriorate to that point, without having set aside any funds along the way, by the year 2000 it had become clear that continuing the pay-as-you-go approach was simply no longer an option.

The Bellaire Millennium Renewal bond program was the first comprehensive package of citywide infrastructure improvements and was approved overwhelmingly by the voters to begin tackling our most critical needs.  Through the successor 2005 Rebuild Bellaire and 2016 Better Bellaire bond programs we’ve continued that work, including the systematic replacement of streets and drainage systems in order of relative priority.  Our progress has been steady, but at only about a third complete we still have a long way to go.  Assuming we remain committed and intend to stay on course, it’s time to identify and begin planning for the next round of projects.

Our 764 street blocks are prioritized according to adopted criteria intended to provide an objective, data-driven ranking and thereby depoliticize the project selection process, taking into account both drainage and pavement condition on every block throughout the City.  At the start of each new program we have the opportunity to revisit and adjust the selection criteria, including the relative weighting between drainage and pavement.  For example, widespread flooding from Tropical Storm Allison in 2001 prompted a marked shift toward emphasizing drainage in the Rebuild Bellaire program, and that of course continues to be our predominant focus today, if anything heightened by more recent flooding events.

Looking ahead to the next group of streets to come after the completion of the current bond program, our citizen Flood Hazard Mitigation Task Force reviewed and discussed the selection criteria extensively over the course of several meetings in coming up with its recommendations.  Among the highlights, the Task Force recommended increasing the weighting in favor of drainage over pavement from the current 60/40, to 70/30 or even 80/20; incorporating a cost-benefit analysis for drainage improvements; and allocating more points for structural flooding.  Relatedly, the Task Force recognized that only pre-Hurricane Harvey structural flooding should be included, since what we’re talking about here are the selection criteria for local drainage improvements, which are not designed or intended to prevent flooding of the magnitude we experienced in Harvey, for which regional solutions are needed.

This distinction between the local and the regional is important to keep in mind.  As we await the results of the Bellaire Master Drainage Concept Plan and its potentially game-changing regional improvement alternatives, it’s not as simple as just calling off any further local improvements on the theory that the greater will include the lesser.  Certainly we rely on both internal and external systems to capture and convey storm water out of the City, and no amount of added downstream capacity would be enough if we can’t get the water there.  Additionally, while regional flood control targets the biggest storms, we still need local drainage improvements for the less widespread, but more frequent events that overwhelm our local systems with periods of intense localized rainfall.  Consider how often everything shuts down because our streets are impassable.  Even if structures aren’t threatened, these periodic disruptions still affect public safety and quality of life, and by reinforcing Bellaire’s image as flood prone, our property values.

Drainage aside, there’s still the matter of our streets continuing to deteriorate.  Limping along with asphalt Band-Aids on streets that really need to be replaced is not cost effective in the long run.  In 2015 we completed an updated pavement condition inventory and assessment of all our 140 lane miles of streets, not just visually at the surface but also utilizing data collected by laser-illuminated downward imaging technology.  Having quantified the need, including for disciplined maintenance to maximize the life of our new streets and drainage, we’ve invested about $6 million annually in street reconstruction (bond funded) and another $2 million for maintenance (combination of METRO mobility funds and pay-as-you-go, although in each of the past three years we’ve cut out the cash portion to keep the tax rate down).

We’ve made steady progress through our successive bond programs, each with strong voter support, but not without some delay due to the time it takes to design and engineer new projects.  In the transition from Rebuild Bellaire through to the start of the 2016 bond program, we had more than a year and a half of downtime before construction could resume.  To break that cycle, we’ve budgeted some of our leftover bond money to get a head start on design and engineering for the next round of street and drainage projects, so they’ll be shovel ready when funded, whether by new bonds, grants, or some combination of the two.  But first, obviously, those projects would need to be identified, which is why we've been reviewing the selection criteria.

As noted, any discussion of revising the criteria presupposes we’re committed to continuing our progress.  The Task Force definitely thought so, and in fact advocated accelerating the pace of work on our local drainage systems as much as possible.  However, through three lengthy discussions among the City Council including a workshop devoted to the subject, proceeding as we have been is not a foregone conclusion.  With no clear consensus, we’ve taken no action and have left the matter unresolved for now.

The only real consequence of taking our time on this is that we wouldn’t be able to begin construction right away if and when future street and drainage projects are approved.  Otherwise, there’s no immediate urgency.  The subject will inevitably come up again in discussion of the Capital Improvement Plan, as early as our pre-budget planning retreat in May.  In the meantime, we welcome your input as always.