Potholes are a common sight these days along many Tucson streets. This one was at South Fourth Avenue and District Street on the south side.


It may sound counterintuitive, but the worse the condition of your street, the less likely it will be fixed.

Tucson and Pima County will spend more than $45 million next fiscal year fixing crumbling roads, but their focus is on keeping our busiest streets from falling apart. Turns out it is far cheaper to maintain a decent road by layering on new seal coat than it is to slow the deterioration of a cracked, pothole-marred street or to bulldoze one that's beyond repair and build a new one.

The Regional Transportation Authority won't be any help, either. Its entire budget, which comes from a voter-approved half-cent sales tax, is earmarked for major construction projects on heavily traveled main streets.

The latest estimate from the Pima Association of Governments is that 52 percent of roads in Pima County are in poor condition. Those streets, mostly residential and industrial, do not pose a serious safety hazard and are simply too expensive to fix.


Keeping the best city streets in top condition is relatively inexpensive. Applying a layer of asphalt emulsion - better known as a fog seal - costs roughly $15,000 per square mile. A more expensive treatment for roads in slightly worse, but still good, condition is microsurfacing, or adding crushed stones mixed with emulsified asphalt, at about $53,375 per mile.

On the opposite end of the financial spectrum is the slow and expensive process of ripping up an entire street and rebuilding it. Priscilla Cornelio, the county's transportation director, pegs that price tag at about $700,000 for one mile of a two-lane road.

No matter which road is taken, the money doesn't go as far as you might think.

Last year, the Pima County Board of Supervisors decided to spend $20 million in a one-time attempt to improve county-maintained streets.

The results were not encouraging.

Before the construction began last year, roughly 66 percent of the roads were either in failed or poor condition. By June 30, when this fiscal year ends, Cornelio's staff estimates that 63 percent will still be in bad shape.

It's a similar story in the city of Tucson, where voters last year approved spending $100 million to fix some of its worst streets.

Even that amount will fix only a fraction of the thousands of miles of roads under city control, said Daryl Cole, the city's transportation director. The city has identified an $850 million backlog in street maintenance.


Some neighborhood roads will be paved from that $100 million Proposition 409 pot, which set aside $3 million a year for the next five years to fix residential streets.

As for county residents, the only possibility for a neighborhood road to be repaired in the next year would be if a water or some other utility line needed to be replaced.

County officials said they will focus on fixing busy main streets with their $5 million annual budget for road repairs.

The lack of money for residential street repairs hit Pima County Supervisor Ray Carroll where he lives this year. The residents of his tiny east-side neighborhood voted to repave their privately owned streets (Carroll abstained from voting). Each resident had to kick in about $2,300.

The Republican supervisor said he is looking forward to the new roads, which he believes will boost the value of his home - even though he isn't looking to move.

State funding declined

Arizona taxes the sale of gasoline and other transportation-related activities for street repairs and gives the money collected to cities and towns. But revenue from the state's Highway User Revenue Fund declined 24 percent from $390 million in 2007 to $298 million in 2010.

The Legislature changed the distribution formula several years ago in order to meet other budget obligations, including funding the Department of Public Safety. Revenue from the fund is improving again, but it's still far below 2007 levels.

County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry dusts off a 27-year old memo to illustrate the challenge of road maintenance.

The March 1986 document outlines the pros and cons of a number of financing solutions. The bottom line is the same now as it was then, he says: "Good roads are cheap" to maintain.

But a more recent report, also authored by Huckelberry, suggests there is a cost to drivers for every pothole they hit and every bad road they bounce down.

Drivers in Pima County will pay an estimated $143 million in car repairs this year, Huckelberry wrote in his annual transportation report.

Which streets make the grade?

Street grade Treatment Cost

90-100 None needed $0

80 fog seal (adding a layer of asphalt emulsion) $15,250

70 chip/fog seal or microsealing (adding $53,375 crushed stones mixed with emulsified asphalt)

40-60 chip/fog or microsealing $53,375

0-30 asphalt paving $213,500

How street quality is determined

Streets are graded on a scale of 1 to 100. City employees subtract points for every crack, crevasse or other subpar condition that can be measured by the human eye.

Technology has recently taken some of human guesswork out of rating each street section. A van outfitted with cameras measures 26-foot sections of city- and county-maintained streets. City workers then count each crack, divot and pothole.

A newer model of the van, expected to be put in service later this year, will count every crack in the pavement.

On StarNet

Find the rating of streets in your neighborhood and all over Tucson with our searchable database at azstarnet.com/databases

Contact reporter Joe Ferguson at jferguson@azstarnet.com or 573-4346.