Investigation | Broken roads, broken system: How Cleveland's road repair system is failing you

Investigation reveals how city strategy is flawed

A 6-month-long, 5 On Your Side investigation reveals how the City of Cleveland’s fundamental strategy for repairing roads is severely flawed, comprising your neighborhood’s infrastructure, your taxpayer money and your safety

When it comes to repairing streets in the City of Cleveland, on the one hand you have evaluating roads. On the other, you have repaving and maintenance. But the ways in which the city goes about determining which roads to focus on is it not so simple. Many residents have told us the right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing, and our investigation uncovered this is true -- and that the city’s fundamental strategy for road repair is seriously flawed.

Residential roads in need

Our investigators visited city neighborhoods whose cracked and pothole-riddled roads needed much attention, and whose homeowners called for immediate action from the city.

Cleveland resident Demetrius Smith told us he’s had damage to his car after driving on his east side street, calling it, “really a nice…rollercoaster ride.”

“Nothing is smooth sailing,” Smith said. 

We learned residents on the west side are struggling with the same issues. Clevelander Leo Torres explained the roads have been like this since he moved to his home on Western Avenue in 1999.

“It’s like driving a car on the train tracks.”

"Every year it actually gets worse. Every year the bumps get bigger," Torres said.
 

 

 

 

Digging for answers

Our 5 On Your Side investigative team attempted to get answers to the questions we had regarding Cleveland’s road repair system, but we were initially given the run around and city officials denied us an interview.

Since the city was hesitant to answer our questions, we did some digging of our own. We dug through an extensive amount of data related to a survey that the city spent $470,000 on in 2007 to understand the condition of roads in Cleveland.

The study, completed in 2009, was a massive evaluation conducted by an outside consulting company that produced a list that rated more than 16,000 Cleveland streets from 1 to 100 -- a rating system created to determine which streets were priority to fix. The city talks about those streets with A through F grades. The problem? That outdated, 9-year-old list is still being used in 2016 as a baseline.

 

According to the survey, more than a third of the city’s streets – around 5,100 – are rated “D” or “F” condition, and only 10 percent of streets are considered to be in “A” quality. In addition, only 1,001 streets have been paved from 2009-2015 -- some which were never originally graded. 

Now, nine years after the grading started, our team spoke with national expert Larry Galehouse, the founder of Michigan State University’s National Center for Pavement Preservation.

Our team showed Galehouse Cleveland’s "D" and "F"-rated streets. Galehouse travels the country helping states, counties and cities with their roads. And, even after all of the bad streets he’s seen nationwide, he told us the worst streets in Cleveland are worrisome.

“Yeah, looking at this, it’s pretty serious,” Galehouse said.

We went out to many of these streets and found there’s a lack of consistency to the city's street ratings.  For example, Zimmer Avenue has a 100 rating, but some residents who live there say it should be rated a 50. The same happened with Arden Road near West 116th Street. It was rated 100 in the original survey, but some residents in the area told us they would give the street a rating of 50.

So, how did the city's streets get to this point?

Worst first?

Galehouse said the single, toughest challenge across the country is the old-school government strategy of building a road, and then building it again later.

“Our politicians, our elected officials, love to see new,” he said. “But we cannot afford to continue to build and use the worst-first philosophy.”

But Cleveland Chief Operating Officer Darnell Brown, who later granted us an interview, told us that very "worst-first philosophy" is what the city uses in its street repair system.

“Everything we do is based on worst first,” Brown told us. The worst-first theme, referring to the worst graded streets getting first priority when it comes to road repairs, was repeated several times during our interview with him.

Brown said, “As we continue to go through this program, it will be evident that the worst streets are getting done first.”

We learned that's not always true, and according to the data, many other streets in better condition -- including those graded "A," "B" and "C," have been repaved before some "D" and "F" graded streets.


 

This includes the streets of some city officials, whose road were not the worst quality, but have been paved in the last seven years since the original study was completed. So we confronted them about the issue.

Cleveland City Councilman Zack Reed, who lives on East 149th Street, is one of those officials. His street was paved in 2009, but there were other streets in the city that were in worse shape.

We shared with Reed, in 2009 when this study was finally completed, his street had a “D” rating, but there were a thousand other streets with an “F” rating. So, we asked, why did his street get paved – his street and not the “F” street.

“The only thing I can tell you at that particular time we weren’t doing rating systems,” Reed said.

“Other streets were done well before my street was done, but my street just happened to be part of…I can’t say to the people of 149th, ‘Because I live on the street, we’re going to skip over your street,'" Reed told us. "We didn’t do it in a Willy-Nilly, ‘Let’s do Zack Reed’s street.’ We did it in a systematic way.”

But this left residents wondering, what is that system? How does a street get paved in Cleveland?

A broken system

When we asked the city for criteria regarding the street repair strategy and grading system, an email we received from Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson’s office said it is “objectively subjective.”

Brown said he wasn’t aware of the phrase “objectively subjective.” When we told him it sounded confusing, he had no reply.

Instead, we pieced it together the best we could. It’s a system where the 2009 study produced a list of the streets that should be done. Then, the city evaluates roads and comes up with its own lists of worst streets in each ward. Then, each council member comes up with his or her own list.

 

TAKE ACTIONUse our interactive map and feedback form to find the grade the city gave your street and share with us why you do or don’t agree.

Cleveland resident Leo Torres' city council representative Dona Brady has sounded off in recent public utility meetings about the flawed system.

“I know these streets—I walk 'em, I drive 'em, I turn in my own lists, which are totally different from the lists I’m given because the lists I’m given don’t make any sense.”

What streets actually get done?

Along with Reed's street, Councilman Jeff Johnson's listed street was also repaved in 2011, despite segments of it having “B” and “C” ratings.

Councilman TJ Dow’s listed street was repaved in 2011 as well—a street that had a “D” rating. But, there were more than 1,000 other “F” streets on the 2009 list.

At the time when Councilman Kevin Conwell’s street was redone, it had eight segments that were given “C” ratings. We questioned why it was given priority over other streets in worse condition, and Conwell pointed to other roads in his ward that have been fixed. He also denied any favoritism.

“We took a look at that and I went to…I walked the street like we’re walking the streets right now and you do an analysis,” Conwell said. “We did East Boulevard,” Conwell told us. “We resurfaced Pierpont. We did Somerset. We’re doing worst. We’re ranking worst.”

A 'systematic approach'

We found one of the better graded roads that the city has taken care of is Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson's street. 

Even with thousands of remaining “D” and “F” streets, Frank Jackson got a newly paved road in 2012. And at the end of his street—more new roads.

We asked for an interview with Jackson, but never got one. City spokesperson Dan Williams told us the mayor's street was done according to the city's systematic approach.

The city's most recent analysis is the upping of its local resurfacing budget from $4.4 million to now $10 million. Conwell noted a project for this year.

 

Conwell pointed to the millions of dollars in street repairs he’s addressed for his ward.

 

 

"And we're getting ready to do...spend $4.2 million on East 75th Street," he said. 

It seems the city is investing more in a system that appears to be flawed. 

For example, the East 75th Street segment between Sherman Avenue and Quincy Avenue is rated a “C.” There are no homes around it, just boarded up buildings. Sherman Avenue is right next to it and it has a "D" rating, but East 75th Street received the attention and was paved. 

We asked how a street like that gets on the city's repaving list. 

"Again, it's based on a pavement condition rating," Conwell said. 

Brown emphasized the City of Cleveland is working hard on its preservation program for crack sealing and adding rejuvenators on newer streets. 

 

 

It’s a process Galehouse explained needs to be done much more often.

“Because if they don’t address their better roads today, they’re going to have even more than 33 percent in the "D” and “F” category,” he said.

Torres said he can only wish his street was repaved.

“I want to stay here, but I would like to live in a city where you can actually drive on the streets,” he said.

 

Here we go again?

Now, nine years after the original study first began, the City of Cleveland recently spent nearly $600,000 on a new, updated study that graded city streets. The master list will be released in September, said spokesperson Daniel Ball.

But the question residents continue to pose is whether or not they will see actual change and improved road safety with the new study, in exchange for their taxpayer dollars. Or, they ask, will it be the same flawed system that impedes their broken roads from becoming a priority?

WATCH: Jonathan Walsh interviews Phyllis Jackson, a resident on Cleveland's east side

“Sometimes when the big trucks come by, you can hear the house shake,” said Phyllis Jackson, who has been living on Central Avenue for 50 years. “We need our street fixed, we do. We need this street fixed.”

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Tell 5 On Your Side Investigator Jonathan Walsh how you feel about your street compared to the grade the City of Cleveland gave it. Use our interactive map and feedback form to find the grade the city gave your street and share with us why you do or don’t agree. Our investigative team will take your feedback and push to have action taken for the streets that need attention.