Roadside maintenance challenges in a shrinking economy

Michael Elmore
Public Works Director
City of Bend, Oregon

One of the challenges facing public works departments across the country is how to stretch maintenance dollars as far as possible. This is even truer today given the current state of the economy. Managers are having to develop new ideas and methods, sometimes even thinking "outside of the box" in order to meet service needs of the customers they serve. This is especially true in the area of street roadside maintenance.

Even though Bend, Oregon is a rapidly growing community, annually experiencing a growth rate in excess of five percent, the Public Works Department is faced with a dwindling budget while at the same time having to develop methods and procedures to maintain roadside areas. Items such as vegetation control, a noxious weed infestation problem, and roadside litter issues are all key areas that the public demands a high level of service and expects agencies to properly maintain. The noxious weeds that have entered the Deschutes County, Oregon area are primarily spread by motor vehicle tires. These weeds can grow from the edge of the right-of-way and spread to private property choking out the desired flowers and vegetation of the community.

To face this problem, the City of Bend Public Works Department has developed a partnership with the Deschutes County Public Works Department to begin a weed-spraying program. Since the City did not have a certified chemical application person on staff and Deschutes County had the staff and equipment available to assist with this project, a cooperative partnership was developed. This has proven very cost effective for both agencies. The City has saved in employee and equipment costs while the County has received financial assistance from the City to help offset their costs.

Another area of roadside maintenance that has been a challenge for the City of Bend has been the landscape maintenance of roadside park strips and center landscape medians along with litter pick-up. The Public Works staff has begun looking for other partnerships that can be formed to help offset maintenance cost. One such partnership is to work with local law enforcement agencies. Bend Public Works has entered into a contractual relationship with the County Sheriff's Department using work release individuals from the County correction facility. The County provides a sizable work force to the City and the City provides funding that pays for a Deputy Sheriff who oversees the work release crew. This provides the City and County several advantages: The City receives inexpensive labor, individuals of the work release program gain a sense of self-worth and develop skills, and the citizens of the community gain beautiful streets and a good return on their tax dollars. Normally we see five to eight individuals, five days a week, that are out providing trash removal, weed removal, tree trimming, brush removal and general landscape maintenance.

During these economic times with the reduction of funding levels, the Public Works Department is developing an "Adopt-A-Road" program. We have been contacted by local service clubs, organizations and citizens that have expressed an interest in adopting a section of road to help remove litter and do general landscape maintenance. Once implemented this will be an excellent venue for these groups to help the community while at the same time helping Public Works stretch its limited maintenance dollars.

One other method of maximizing the effectiveness of roadside maintenance and stretching the dollar is to stay abreast of new equipment that is being developed for these purposes. Replacing old equipment may reduce general maintenance and repair costs and offer improved efficiencies.

The City of Bend has found this to be true by past experience. A couple of years ago the Department purchased a multi-purpose tractor unit that provides not only mowing capabilities but also sidewalk snow removal and other maintenance features. The old mowing unit that was replaced had reached the end of its useful life several years prior and was subject to frequent visits to the maintenance garage for repairs. This caused excessive downtime for the unit, prolonged the vegetation control process, and caused some employee ineffectiveness as the employee had to be switched to other duties while the unit was being repaired. With the new unit, maintenance downtime has been dramatically reduced and additional miles of vegetation control are being achieved.

A key area that may assist agencies in dealing with roadside maintenance issues is staying in communications with the customers they serve. As agencies discuss what issues they may be facing, citizens or groups may come forward with ideas to help address the problems. The communication methods that may be used include discussing issues with the local newspaper, television or radio stations. This is especially true in Bend, Oregon. The Public Works Department started this process by discussing concerns with our City Council during regularly-scheduled meetings. Since the meetings are well attended by the community and media, we have seen citizens come forward offering ideas or looking for ways to help.

Another communications tool that is proving to be effective is neighborhood associations. The City of Bend recently implemented a neighborhood associations program. These associations are defined areas of the community where citizens come forward to help discuss and address the issues. One neighborhood association has come forward and decided to coordinate and sponsor a "noxious weed" pulling event for the community. They have coordinated with local trash collection companies to have dumpsters donated, and plastic bags and advertising have also been donated to help encourage the public to participate in this endeavor.

These are not new ideas or unique to Bend, but are ideas that have been around for years. However, as public agencies all over the country are facing budget challenges, these are tools that can be added back into the manager's toolbox to help reduce costs for the communities they serve while at the same time improve service levels.

Michael Elmore can be reached at (541) 317-3021 or at melmore@ci.bend.or.us.