Preserving streets saves money | Guest View

By Larry Waters | Apr 05, 2017
Larry Waters, former Mukilteo Public Works Director

EDITOR’S NOTE: Larry Waters, who served as Mukilteo’s Public Works Director between January 2007 and June 2013 before moving to Bend, Oregon, recently visited Mukilteo.


A recent visit to Mukilteo got me thinking about all the projects I was responsible for during my six years with the city, including the street preservation program – the most challenging project.

I remain grateful for having had the opportunity to be a part of making Mukilteo the wonderful city that it is. At the same time, it is hard seeing one of the best street maintenance programs in Puget Sound shelved, as it was four years ago.

During the last couple of years of the program, I talked with folks from other cities that wanted to know how we managed to create a chip seal pavement preservation program. No question – we were the envy of many other cities. My answer was simple: I told them we had a mayor and council members that understood the importance of cost-effective pavement preservation. As a result of my efforts, Lynnwood and Shoreline also started chip sealing.

The reconstruction of a half-mile of Harbour Pointe Boulevard south of Chennault Beach Road helped the council understand the value of preserving pavement before it deteriorated. The cost was close to $1 million for just a half mile of street. Fortunately, we got a grant for much of it, but that high cost made it clear that letting a street go to the point of needing reconstruction, or even grinding and an overlay, was irresponsible management.

Six years in, the year I retired, the pavement management program was shelved. If it had been adhered to, the city would have been on course to preserve all of its pavement – about 50 miles – in a 10-year cycle at a cost of about $500,000 per year. No other pavement preservation process has been shown to provide such a high benefit-to-cost ratio.

It should also be noted at this point that grinding and overlaying is not pavement preservation. It is a sign that preservation has not been practiced or that the existing road was poorly built. An added benefit of a chip seal process is that about 60 percent less rock and oil is needed than the equivalent life cycle of an overlay. Not many conservation programs can show that level of resource use reduction.

What made the chip seal program so perfect for Mukilteo was that virtually all of the city pavement was in good enough shape to allow use of the process, versus having to grind and overlay. In other words, using the chip seal process was like changing the oil in your car engine – it greatly increased the chances of a long and useful engine life at minimal cost.

Down here in Bend, as with thousands of cities across the country, council members over the years have allowed the streets to get to the point where seal coating cannot fix the pavement. Consequently, the city has over $80 million in deferred street maintenance costs. Step outside the city into the county and you will find the roads in excellent condition – primarily due to an aggressive seal coating program.

The chip seal program the council authorized in 2007 was on course to prevent such a deferred maintenance backlog in Mukilteo. Every year that pavement maintenance is deferred is the same as agreeing to pay more in the future to fix streets – until you get to a point like Bend and so many other cities where the money is simply not available, nor does there seem to be any way to raise it.

Some cities in the Midwest, due to lack of pavement preservation practices, are now converting worn out pavement back to gravel. They simply do not have the funds to repave.

I recently spent several hours in Mukilteo. Of the chip-sealed streets I drove, I noticed they now appear to be just normal pavement. It is no secret that many people don’t like the initial chip seal surface. Most people cannot even tell that these streets were chip sealed a few years ago.

Hopefully, the council will decide to re-fund the street maintenance program and get back to preserving Mukilteo streets, before it is too late, and maybe even catch up for the four years lost since I left.

And, hopefully, Mukilteo residents will support the council in getting back on track with a program to preserve the pavement in Mukilteo. After all, keeping Mukilteo one of the best, if not the best, little cites in the Puget Sound Region is a worthwhile goal.

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