Au­dit: City has back­log of thou­sands of patches await­ing fi­nal re­pairs.

Austin American-Statesman - - FRONT PAGE - By Ben Wear bwear@states­

Austin’s wa­ter util­ity, af­ter re­pair­ing pipe leaks, is leav­ing be­hind tem­po­rary road patches at twice the rate that the city’s Public Works De­part­ment can make per­ma­nent re­pairs to them, ac­cord­ing a sting­ing au­dit re­leased this week.

Those lin­ger­ing as­phalt ban­dages, the au­dit says, are of­ten un­even to be­gin with and then de­te­ri­o­rate over time, caus­ing not only un­com­fort­ably bumpy travel but a safety haz­ard for cars and other ve­hi­cles at­tempt­ing to nav­i­gate them.

As of a year ago, the city au­di­tor’s re­port says, Austin streets had at least 3,800 such tem­po­rary patches, some of them in place for up to 18 months de­spite a re­quire­ment in the city code that fi­nal re­pairs oc­cur within 90 days.

It’s un­clear how many of those are un­safe, but the au­dit noted that res­i­dents’ com­plaints to 311 have in­cluded re­ports of “an ex­posed hole, a pipe stick­ing out of the road, and a patch that had fallen by 10 inches.” The au­di­tor’s spot check of 10 tem­po­rary patches found three were more than a quar­ter inch above the sur­round­ing road sur­face and two had de­gen­er­ated into loose gravel.

The per­ma­nent re­pair of a util­ity patch in Austin, on av­er­age, takes about a year, the au­dit says. And eras­ing that back­log would take 3.6 years, ac­cord­ing to the 15-page re­port, even if Austin Wa­ter were to stop cre­at­ing such patches when it re­pairs un­der­ground leaks and line breaks.

But the wa­ter de­part­ment is do­ing 185 such projects each month, the au­dit says, even as Public Works does fi­nal re­pairs on an av­er­age of just 89. Staffing lies at the heart of the dis­par­ity. The util­ity has 107 em­ploy­ees and 22 crews re­pair­ing pipes and lay­ing down rough “cold mix” as­phalt patches on the street, while Public Works has 53 work­ers and four crews com­ing be­hind to smooth out the dam­age with road-ready “hot mix” as­phalt.

Richard Men­doza, who has led Public Works since early this year, said his de­part­ment has taken on the prob­lems in a num­ber of ways, in­clud­ing hir­ing pri­vate crews to make some of the re­pairs. The back­log is now down to about 2,200 lin­ger­ing patches, Men­doza said Tuesday, and he an­tic­i­pates be­ing able to catch up be­fore the end of 2018.

In ad­di­tion, the de­part­ment was al­lo­cated six more em­ploy­ees for patch re­pairs, a full crew, un­der the fis­cal 2017 city bud­get and is hir­ing them now, he said.

“We’re look­ing at a much more man­age­able num­ber go­ing for­ward,” Men­doza said.

Men­doza also said that Austin Wa­ter plans to in­clude fi­nal re­pair of streets in its con­tracts for reg­u­larly sched­uled pipe re­place­ment projects. Public Works crews would still need to do that job for emer­gency util­ity re­pairs. He couldn’t say what per­cent­age of util­ity street cuts are reg­u­larly sched­uled projects.

The prob­lem isn’t new — a 1998 city au­dit also showed a street patch back­log. And un­til the last few months, the to-do list’s length was some­thing of a mys­tery, the au­dit says.

“In­con­sis­tent and in­com­plete data on street-cut work or­ders pre­vents the city from know­ing the true size of the back­log of tem­po­rary util­ity patches, or how cost-ef­fec­tive Public Works is at per­form­ing the re­pairs,” says the au­dit, which will be the sub­ject of an Austin City Coun­cil com­mit­tee hear­ing Wednesday. “As a re­sult, the city can­not be sure that a street-cut re­pair has been com­pleted or that all re­pairs are ac­counted for.”

The city au­di­tor’s re­view of re­pair records from both Austin Wa­ter and Public Works showed that 11 per­cent of the time the two city de­part­ments showed a dif­fer­ing sta­tus — ei­ther com­plete or in­com­plete — for needed street re­pairs.

The de­part­ment’s project track­ing sys­tems, Men­doza said, “were not link­ing up. We did a cleanup of the data.”

Public Works awarded a $1 mil­lion con­tract last June to an out­side ven­dor to make some of the re­pairs, the au­dit says. That came on top of the nor­mal $8 mil­lion to $10 mil­lion it spends an­nu­ally for this pur­pose us­ing city em­ploy­ees. Men­doza said an­other such con­tract, part of the ef­fort to play catch-up, is in the works.

“How­ever, Public Works can­not de­ter­mine if the con­tract is cost-ef­fec­tive as com­pared to their re­pair costs,” the au­dit says. “Data that Public Works col­lects on the costs of its in-house re­pairs is in­com­plete and may not re­flect ac­tual labor and equip­ment ex­penses.”

Men­doza said this prob­lem is con­fined to street ex­ca­va­tions due to wa­ter and waste­water pip­ing. Un­der city pol­icy, when a street is torn up for un­der­ground work by an­other util­ity, such as buried elec­tric lines for Austin En­ergy or ca­bles owned by pri­vate telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions com­pa­nies, the con­trac­tor must re­pair the street after­ward to a fi­nal form based on city stan­dards.

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