On Politics
4:03 pm
Fri July 27, 2012

Of Providence, politics and potholes

The sign on Interstate 95 says `entering historic Providence.’ RIPR political analyst Scott MacKay says it may be time to change that slogan to entering the `city of  cracked pavement.’

From the top of Elmhurst to the bottom of Elmwood, from Wanskuk to the banks of the Woonasquatucket, Providence is a city of crumbling roads. Potholes pock the business arteries like acne on a teenager’s face. Poorly maintained sidewalks make things precarious for joggers and the wheelchair-bound alike. The endless patching of roads riven by underground utility work never ends.

Years of neglect have turned streets into slalom courses for beleaguered drivers yearning to avoid yet another trip to the alignment shop. There have been temporary repairs and some pothole plugging, but no comprehensive plan for addressing the need for street repair and paving has been done for more than 10 years.

The river of red ink that has cascaded through city finances over the past few recession-racked budget cycles has stalled any serious attempt to fix this vital urban infrastructure. When you’re broke, you don’t put in a new driveway.

Now Mayor Angel Taveras has proposed a bond issue of about $40 million to finally begin street repaving and repair. And the city council started fighting over that oldest of Political Science 101 questions, Who Gets What?

On one level, you can’t blame the council. The 15-members representing Providence’s diverse mosaic of neighborhoods naturally have their parochial concerns. Each member wants to make sure not only that his or her district gets a piece of this action. They are all curbstone politicians who want the neighbors to know they have the City Hall clout to get things done for their voters and allies.

Who can forget the celebrated battles of the 1980s when some council members, most notably Councilwoman Joan DiRuzzo of  Onleyville insisted on riding in the snowplow trucks to direct which streets in her ward would be cleared first during a January nor’easter?

Providence was once the quintessential political machine city. For years Democratic Party mayors and operatives ran our capital city as a barony. Getting   elected mayor meant that you got rich and all your friends and relatives got jobs.

Jobs and favors were the coin of the realm. After the Democratic Party machine withered, Mayor Buddy Cianci took over and mastered this tradition of helping friends and punishing enemies, real or imagined. Remember the pre-election blitzes of street paving and sidewalk replacement that accompanied every close Cianci reelection campaign?

Fast forward to the 21st Century. Taveras, the new mayor, has no jobs with which to feed the perpetually hungry city council. In an era of retrenchment Taveras needs cooperation, not confrontation, from the council.

In their zeal to represent local concerns, the city council too often acts like 15 parish priests focused on their own backyards instead of  thinking like a bishop who has uppermost the concerns of the whole flock.

The reality is that the city needs $200 million or so to bring all the streets up to snuff  but there is no way struggling property taxpayers can afford a bond that big right now. So the $40 million is a start.

For now, Taveras and cooler heads on the council, such as Council President Mike Solomon, have forged a compromise that would give each of the 15 wards at least $1.3 million each in repairs. Taveras’ administration has used engineering criteria to plan which streets gets fixed first, a much better system than the usual `you gotta know a guy’ tradition.

There will undoubtedly be public meetings and hearings on the allocation of the $40 million bond. Providence taxpayers need to attend and give voice to their concerns. And city council members would be smart let the engineering merits trump patronage in deciding which streets get done.

The upside here is that for once, the voters – the people who pay the taxes–have the final say. No potholes get filled unless the $40 million bond issue gets approved at this November’s general election. This time the voters should make the money is spent where it is needed, rather than on a reelection   insurance policy for connected council members.

Scott MacKay’s commentary can be heard every Monday on Morning Edition at 6:45 and 8:45. You can also follow his political reporting and analysis at the `On Politics’ blog at RIPR.org

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