Killeen’s roads are a mess.
That should be obvious to anyone who drives on them regularly. And the situation has only gotten worse since the severe winter weather that pummeled the area in February left many streets with potholes, broken pavement and in some cases, entire sections of missing asphalt.
The damage has been so severe that Killeen City Manager Kent Cagle told City Council members in early March that about $40 million would required to repair the damage. That’s on top of the $120 million needed for repairs to Killeen’s 539 miles of streets and roads, based on a yearlong city-funded study by Transmap, an Ohio-based firm.
No doubt, the issue of roads is one that resonates with area residents.
In a Herald online poll conducted May 30 through June 5, 47% of respondents, that’s 195 voters, considered roads as the number one priority the city should address in its upcoming Fiscal Year 2021-2022 budget. The poll choice far outpolled the category of public safety, the second-place choice, which drew 127 votes, or 31%.
Considering what a major concern crime has been in our community over the last year — especially homicides and other violent crimes — the fact that nearly half the respondents want the city to focus on roads speaks volumes about the magnitude of the problem.
City officials are all too aware of the urgent need to repair damaged roadways.
The major question to be answered is how best to pay for those repairs.
As of last fall, the city was spending about $1.6 million annually on street repairs, according to figures provided at the time by then-Public Works Director Danielle Singh, who has since been promoted to assistant city manager.
The bulk of the money for street maintenance and repairs is generated by a $1.50 monthly street fee, which is charged to the city’s water customers.
In late March, the city council bolstered the street fund by $4.25 million, using other city funding sources, to facilitate repairs needed to 30 miles of city roads, in the wake of February’s harsh winter weather.
Still, that was a one-time fix, and the money was only enough to address the streets with the most severe needs.
At Tuesday’s city council meeting, Councilman Rick Williams proposed consideration of a bond, or series of bonds, totaling $100 million to tackle the problem.
Council members agreed to take up the topic at an upcoming meeting, to get a better understanding of what such a bond would entail.
Of course, a bond is not necessarily a cure-all for the city’s roads problem. A large bond would require voter approval, and the next uniform election date is not until November. Even if voters were to say yes to a bond issue then, the city would still have to put the project out for bid and select engineering and construction firms before the actual work could begin. As a result, any bond endorsed by the council this month might not produce any tangible results for nearly a year.
Alternatively, the city could issue certificates of obligation, which do not require voter approval, but they would necessarily be more limited in size. Consequently, they would fall short of addressing the problem citywide.
In response to a question about the potential size of a road bond, several council members tossed out numbers ranging from a low of $20 million to a top figure of $100 million.
As Councilwoman Mellisa Brown noted, a $20 million bond wouldn’t heavily impact the city’s debt service tax rate. She also said she wouldn’t consider a bond until the city approves a street impact fee, which would be assessed to developers and builders to recoup the cost of building road infrastructure to new subdivisions and facilities. The city recently approved a wastewater impact fee, but street impact fees are not on the table at this time.
Obviously, a $100 million bond would encompass a broader scope of road projects citywide, which would benefit more residents. But a bond of that size likely would have a significant impact on the city’s debt service tax. That could result in a higher overall property tax rate for residents, as well as a less favorable bond rating for the city.
Is a bond issue the answer to the city’s streets challenge? Is $100 million enough to adequately address the problem? Can Killeen get a bond at a good rate if the council chooses “to go large” with a bond package?
These are all questions that need to be answered before the council moves ahead with a potential bond initiative.
More importantly, are Killeen’s voters ready to give their OK to a large bond issue at a time when the city’s economy is still in the process of rebounding from last year’s coronavirus-related shutdown?
The federal government has already pledged to send Killeen $27 million in COVID relief money, following the passage earlier this year of the American Rescue Plan Act, but use of the money is highly restricted, and the only infrastructure uses authorized for the funding are water, sewer and broadband internet.
Moreover, even if the COVID relief money could go toward the city’s road repairs, it would be a short-term funding solution, and Killeen’s roads crisis is a long-term problem.
Neighboring Harker Heights has already earmarked $2 million to tackle that city’s road issues, beginning with an engineering study to determine the scope and severity of the damage.
Having spent nearly $6 million on fast-tracked repairs to its most dangerous streets, Killeen officials now must work toward a viable, long-term plan.
The question now is exactly what that plan will look like — and more importantly, who will foot the bill.
Figuring all that out may prove to be as big a mess as the roads we’ve all been driving on.