When venturing outside in the aftermath of winter, notice the fresh crop of tire-eating potholes marring city streets.
Griping about Spokane’s pavement is a topic that can unite newcomers, lifelong residents, millennials, boomers, Democrats and Republicans.
All this complaining begs the question: Where are Spokane’s worst streets? And is there an objective way to tell which streets are the worst?
Yes, as it turns out. The city keeps a database of all 11,821 blocks of road in the city, with a quality rating between 0 and 100.
Based on a Spokesman-Review data analysis, the honor of the worst roads in Spokane goes to a small residential neighborhood called Grandview Thorpe, which sits squished between Finch Arboretum and U.S. Highway 195 in southwest Spokane. The average road rating in the area is 37.
The best roads belong to Five Mile Prairie. Roads in this northwest part of town have an average score of 78.5.
Where do those numbers come from? Every summer, the city hires a group of temporary workers, often college students, to rate the quality of the pavement by city block. The process takes three months and is done in chunks: Arterials are rated every two years, and residential streets every four.
They use a standardized tool, called the pavement condition index, and go block-by-block checking for cracking, ruts, patches, bumps and other defects. A block that’s just received a grind and overlay or is rebuilt will start out at 100, then deteriorate over time.
Those turn into what’s called a PCI for the block: the number indicating its quality. Unpaved roads get a -1 rating.
Quality ratings are updated when roads are improved or have work done in addition to the annual survey.
The scores help the city plan road improvement projects and show street department staff where attention is needed.
We started looking into this before the latest crop of potholes hit, so these numbers are more of a guide than a precise indicator of quality. But if anything, a new round of potholes probably made the city’s lowest-quality streets a little worse, since pavement with existing problems is more prone to cold weather damage.
We took the city’s latest road scores, updated in December, assigned each block to a neighborhood and averaged the pavement ratings, weighted so longer blocks counted more. (If you want more nitty-gritty on how we did this, check out the Know Spokane blog at www.spokesman.com/blogs/know-spokane.)
Why did Grandview Thorpe score so poorly?
For one, it has very few streets: just 82 blocks totaling 44,241 feet of road. That means a few bad sections of road skew the score more than they would in the city’s biggest neighborhood, East Central, which has 1,017 blocks totaling more than 440,000 feet.
In general, smaller neighborhoods tend to have pavement scores near the high or low end of the city. The second-worst neighborhood, Peaceful Valley, also is the city’s smallest. The second-best is Browne’s Addition. Big neighborhoods tend to have more middling ratings, because good and bad streets balance out.
The city prioritizes maintaining arterials and major routes that many people use to travel, and that’s reflected in data.
Overall, the city’s roads scored an average of 63. But its 10 major arterial corridors, including North Division Street, 29th Avenue, Maple and Ash streets and Francis Avenue, averaged a higher score of 72. But there is a large variation. Grand Boulevard, 29th Avenue and Francis Avenue all scored above 95, while North Division, Hamilton/Nevada and Monroe were in the 50s.
Higher scores for arterials shouldn’t be a surprise. Since the city began putting more money into rebuilding streets following the passage of a tax in 2004, work has focused on arterials. It also shouldn’t be a surprise that streets remain an issue. When voters passed the 10-year, $117 million bond, officials warned that the backlog of needed road construction was $200 million. A decade later, citizens agreed to a street levy.
Utilities spokeswoman Marlene Feist said the city tends to look at road quality based on which roads get used the most, rather than the neighborhoods people live in.
If you travel to the store from your house, “90 percent of your trip or better is spent on the arterial streets,” she said.
Grandview Thorpe has just a single road, 16th Avenue, leading to the bulk of its streets. Because there are no businesses in the neighborhood, people have no reason to travel the roads if they don’t live there, which means they’re low traffic and not a high priority for repair.
“It’s a dead-end neighborhood,” said former neighborhood council chair Tina Luerssen.
She said the neighborhood is more concerned about the lack of sidewalks, bike lanes and shoulders than the pavement quality itself in most cases, though they’d like to see pavement on a hilly stretch of 14th Avenue that’s the only route into an area with about 30 houses.
There are 1,339 blocks in the city with a perfect score of 100. In Latah Hangman, which is home to a number of new developments, one-third of total blocks have a 100 pavement rating. Citywide, the average is 11 percent.
Just three paved blocks in the city have a rating of zero, and all are on the South Hill: 20th Avenue between Lincoln and Post streets on the edge of Manito Park, Sixth Avenue west of Wall Street, and Eighth Avenue from its west end to Cannon Street. Those roads were built in 1949, 1910 and 1912, respectively, which might explain their poor quality.