City of Spokane’s Serbousek keeps his eyes on the road
How can you tell which kids are likely to become engineers?
They’re the ones like Mark Serbousek. The treehouse builders and tunnel diggers. The ones who tear something apart to see how it works, or add components to make it more efficient.
Like the time 40 years ago when Serbousek and some buddies hatched the idea of attaching springs to the rear of a conventional bicycle to enhance its off-road worthiness.
Of course, not every project back then was suitable for “Popular Mechanics.”
“We had a lot of gunpowder around the house, so I made a lot of things with gunpowder,” Serbousek recalled, quickly adding, “I still have all my fingers.”
After surviving childhood and graduating from Shadle Park High School, Serbousek followed in his father’s footsteps and earned an engineering degree.
He began his career in the private sector, designing buildings and bridges. “After I did a couple of bridges for the city, I realized that if I wanted to stay with the bigger projects, I would have to make a move. So I joined up with the city, and still am the city bridge engineer.”
Serbousek also is director of Spokane’s Street Division. He recently discussed how Spokane’s roads compare with other cities’, and how residents can help his crews dig us out of the next big storm.
S-R: When you drive around town, what goes through your mind?
Serbousek: I’m always looking at streets – not only the surface, but also the signals and signage, because that’s all under my department, too. I notice potholes we need to fix, or ways we can improve traffic flow.
S-R: Do you have favorite streets?
Serbousek: The ones we’ve just completed are my favorites, because they require less maintenance. My least favorite are the ones totally falling apart – the ones we’re getting calls on and don’t have the funds to fix right now. East Francis is terrible, but we’re going to fix that next year.
S-R: Of Spokane’s almost 1,000 miles of roadway, how much is unpaved?
Serbousek: About 60 miles.
S-R: What’s the solution?
Serbousek: Right now, neighbors can form an LID (local improvement district) and get 50 percent of the construction cost paid for by the city.
S-R: How has Spokane’s road philosophy evolved during your tenure?
Serbousek: South Lincoln was our first attempt at what Portland calls the rain-garden approach, where we route storm water away from our sewer system and into the ground. During big storms, that system pipes water into the Cannon Hill Park pond. It’s a different way of managing storm water, and has its detriments. It doubled the price of the project, and created some maintenance problems. We’ve had to pull our trucks out of (the catch basins) a couple of times, because we can’t see them when snow piles up.
S-R: Any other new ideas?
Serbousek: We’ve actually changed how we design streets. We’re looking at them as a permanent structure, with enough rock underneath and enough depth in the asphalt to turn them into perpetual pavement. That way we can come back in 10 years and grind them, and have a brand new surface. The idea is to pay a few more dollars up front and have a system we can maintain better.
S-R: Is salting the roads a thing of the past?
Serbousek: We don’t use straight salt anymore – we’ve gone to a mag (magnesium) chloride deicer with a rust inhibitor. It works really well, but it has its own shortcomings. It’s not as tough on steel, but it’s really hard on some aluminums, including alloy wheels.
S-R: You know street directors across the country. Do motorists everywhere complain about potholes?
Serbousek: Everybody does. No agency has the funding needed to fix all its roads. Spokane streets are probably better than most. You go over to Seattle, which doesn’t have the freeze-thaw cycles we do, and their streets are worse than ours.
S-R: What’s the best and worse things you can say about Spokane streets?
Serbousek: The best thing is that we’re trying to get a handle on them. Not many other cities have had citizens put a bond together to help tackle their street problems. The worse thing you can say is that we still don’t have enough funding to do everything needed.
S-R: What’s your annual budget for road maintenance?
Serbousek: Around $20 million.
S-R: When you’re out walking and you hear a car go by with studded tires, what goes through your mind?
Serbousek: “Why?” With today’s tire technology, you don’t need studs. And they’re really hard on roads. They probably cost us $4 million to $5 million a year in asphalt damage.
S-R: How do you gear up for big storms?
Serbousek: We’re geared up right now. We have our trucks ready, and can have blades on them in 15 minutes. And we’ve already split our shifts so we have crews working seven days a week.
S-R: Do you expect global warming to reduce snow-removal costs?
Serbousek: I haven’t seen that yet. We’ve had some pretty bad storms the past several years. I don’t know what it is about Spokane, but lately we’ve been getting these microstorms that sit on top of us and just let go.
S-R: How do your crews respond to a snow storm?
Serbousek: As soon as it starts snowing, we’re out there deicing. And once we get an inch, we start knocking it off. When we have two inches of snow and four more anticipated, we bring in more crews from our sewer and water departments, and concentrate on arterials and bus routes. If we get more than six inches, we pull in (private) graders and anybody else who’s not already out there, and plow all residential streets.
SR: What sort of person makes a good snowplow driver?
Serbousek: You have to have nerves of steel. You can’t see your blade. You’re plowing around cars. You have to watch out for kids, for angry citizens throwing shovels at you, pulling guns – we’ve had it all.
S-R: What can people do to help crews clear streets?
Serbousek: The biggest thing is to follow the ordinance regarding street parking. This is an even year, since snow season starts in 2012. That means all cars parked on streets should be on the even (address) side of the road, and entirely off arterials. That way we can get through neighborhoods faster and get traffic moving.
S-R: Can your drivers keep snow from blocking driveways if they’re marked?
Serbousek: No. Our plows aren’t equipped with gates to prevent snow from blocking driveways. When we had that feature on the plows back in the ’80s, they were a maintenance nightmare.
S-R: What are you most proud of?
Serbousek: The job my employees do in spite of the budget cuts we’ve had in recent years. We get lots of letters and emails thanking us for taking care of particular problems.
S-R: Will you ever catch up with street maintenance?
Serbousek: No, we never will. We have too many needs for the funds we have available.
S-R: What do you like most about your job?
Serbousek: I like the challenge. I never have to look for something to do.
Spokane freelance writer Michael Guilfoil can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.