Previous sidewalk damage on Pearl Street Northeast on Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2021. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

Salem residents’ satisfaction with the city’s maintenance of streets, sidewalks and bridges reached an all-time low since it began surveying residents in 2016.

This year, fewer than half of residents who responded to a community satisfaction survey said they were satisfied with how the city has been maintaining its infrastructure.

That’s a marked decline from 68% last year, but closer to a 2019 low of 54%.

“Street and sidewalk maintenance has been a long-standing issue for some Salem residents, and it typically has among the highest negative ratings compared to other services. COVID-19 also likely affected opinions due to the decline in commuting in 2020 and the return to near pre-pandemic levels in 2021,” the survey results summary stated.

During a Salem City Council work session on Sept. 27, John Horvick with DHM Research, who conducted the survey, said they couldn’t pinpoint the specific reason streets maintenance had such a marked decline in community satisfaction. Other areas which saw declines, like the library, could be attributed to pandemic shifts like closures or decreased services.

Some residents pointed to worsening negativity because of the ongoing pandemic, while others said more time at home has led to more time to walk and observe crumbling sidewalks. Some said the city isn’t spending as much repairing its streets.

Trevor Smith, city spokesperson, said DHM didn’t ask follow-up questions to the one about infrastructure maintenance.

“We don’t have definitive facts on why that ranking is like that,” he said of the decline in satisfaction.

Salem Reporter talked to residents, a contractor and a Salem city councilor to try to understand why people are less satisfied with maintenance of streets, sidewalks and bridges.

Roy Houck of Roy Houck Construction, an asphalt contractor, said the score was lower because the city isn’t repairing as many streets after a bond measure ran out years ago.

In 2008, Salem voters approved a $100 million bond to pay for more than 40 street and bridge projects.

Though those bond projects ended in 2017, Smith said the city was able to save money from that bond to pay for current projects.

In the past year, improvements to the sidewalks on Northwest Rosemont Avenue, to Northeast Brown Road and to Division Street were all completed with 2008 bond funds, Smith said. He said the city was able to stretch the bond funds by “carefully staging projects and financing.”

Despite the resident's low score, the city spent the most on asphalt repairs this fiscal year than it has in the last four fiscal years.

For 2020-21, the city’s street maintenance department spent $795,784 on repairs. That’s compared to $579,000 in 17-18, $570,579 in 18-19 and $756,130 in 19-20.

The city spent $1.3 million doing sidewalk repairs and Americans with Disabilities Act curb improvements in fiscal year 17-18 after an influx of additional funding, Smith said. That’s compared to $1.09 million spent this year.

Most of Salem’s road projects are paid for through the gas tax, Smith said.

He said streets maintenance goes in waves and they’re opportunistic, tackling large projects when they can.

He likened it to home repairs, some are more expensive than others, so homeowners tackle the little projects first.

Smith said last year’s projects were impacted by the Beachie Creek Fire which disrupted road construction, so it’s difficult to compare year over year.

This summer, the city spent $759,215 repairing asphalt around the city in places like Southeast Battle Creek Road, Southeast Rickey Street and River Road South.

It spent another $686,140 repairing concrete sidewalks on Northeast Pearl Street, Southeast Madras Street and Joseph Street, among others.

Houck said when people aren’t satisfied, whether it’s due to too much traffic, poor road conditions or the proliferation of homeless encampments along sidewalks, they don’t like what’s going on.

He said depending on who the survey taker was, that could change which part of the question they focused on.

West Salem residents, for example, might home in on the bridge portion.

“People focus on the bridges not necessarily for conditions, but traffic backup,” Houck said.

That’s why Councilor Jim Lewis, who represents west Salem, said he thinks there was such a sharp decline.

During the Salem City Council meeting where councilors discussed the survey, he said it was the killing of the controversial third bridge across the Willamette River that caused people to be less satisfied.

He told Salem Reporter that each year they did the survey until 2019, survey respondents brought up the third bridge as a priority. Then the proposal died that year after a council vote.

“That’s when people gave up,” Lewis said.

Deanna Garcia, chair of the North Lancaster Neighborhood Association, said she’s lived in Salem for a long time and feels roads, bridges and other infrastructure haven’t kept pace with population growth.

She cited issues with traffic control devices like stop signs where traffic signals are needed, and “safer crossing” crosswalks, which have additional signage and flashing beacons, inconveniently positioned.

Bill Smaldone, a Willamette University history professor, said the problem lies in the declining condition of residential streets.

“These are often not included in bond measures to repair or upgrade roads (bond measures usually go for main arteries) and are maintained with scarce general fund dollars. Hence, they tend to be neglected,” he said in an email.

Alan Scott, who’s advocated for fixing city sidewalks, said people didn’t see the city out repairing sidewalks.

“You walk around this town and there’s so many people who have fallen walking the sidewalks. It’s not surprising people rank their satisfaction with those services less,” he said.

Scott said he couldn’t point to anything specific he’s seen or heard in the past year that could explain the decrease.

But he added, “Covid has made people more negative and that could be a large part of that decline too.”

Contact reporter Saphara Harrell at 503-549-6250, [email protected]

JUST THE FACTS, FOR SALEM - We report on your community with care and depth, fairness and accuracy. Get local news that matters to you. Subscribe to Salem Reporter starting at $5 a month. Click I want to subscribe!