February 19, 2004

Winter Takes Toll on Ithaca's Roads

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Next time you mutter to yourself about how cold and snowy Ithaca is, just think how the roads feel. The snow, rain and cold weather that come with winter breaks them up, and the city has trouble keeping up with the cost.

When water seeps into cracks in the road and freezes, it expands and forces those cracks open, breaking apart the asphalt, explained Rick Ferrel, assistant superintendent of the Streets and Facilities Division of Ithaca’s Department of Public Works. As water makes its way to the road’s base layer, the problems get worse.

Ferrel said that roads are designed to last for about 50 years, but “if you don’t do the maintenance, the street will be due for total reconstruction earlier than you planned.” Routine maintenance includes filling in potholes and resurfacing roads to protect them from the elements.

The task of maintaining roads on Cornell’s campus falls to both the University and Ithaca. Most of the roads at Cornell are owned and maintained by the University, but roads that extend into Ithaca and the surrounding municipalities are owned by those municipalities, said Jim Gibbs, director of maintenance management.

According to Gibbs, these roads include Forest Home Drive, Thurston and University Avenues. University Avenue is especially bumpy in the stretch between the Johnson Museum and Thurston Avenue Bridge, but according to Ferrel, this area of the road is actually Cornell’s responsibility.

“The city does not believe it’s a city street [but that] it belongs to Cornell, and Cornell believes it belongs to the city,” Ferrel said. He said that lawyers are currently discussing to whom the road belongs and that “they’ve been working on that for several years.” He added that the city has no record of ever maintaining that stretch of the street.

Gibbs disagreed, saying that the avenue is the city’s responsibility because “University Avenue existed before the University [did]” as a public thoroughfare. He added that Cornell has no interest in obtaining the stretch of road. “Why would we want to buy someone else’s problem?” he asked.

Students seem to agree that the road needs work, but there is dissent over who is responsible.

“I think it’s a matter of the city,” said Stephen Cheung ’06. “They definitely need to do something about [it].”

Andrew Vitale ’04, however, said that “Cornell should be in charge of it.”

Cornell has plans to maintain and rebuild its roads over several years. Rebuilding a road involves digging a section of that road up, laying a new base layer of gravel and paving it over. Gibbs said that Cornell does this to its roads about every 20 to 30 years but noted that there are “so many variables that play into how long a pavement will last.” One major factor is the nature of traffic on that road; roads which bear the brunt of major bus routes, for instance, need more maintenance than others.

One of the recent maintenance projects the University overtook this year was Campus Road. Gibbs said that the road was resurfaced, which will make “a huge impact,” especially for visitors who use the road to get to sports events, but that “it’s not going to last because we didn’t address the underlying issues.” The decision to rebuild a road is affected by many factors.

For instance, Gibbs said that Tower Road needs to be rebuilt, but that reconstruction will not happen until concerns such as parking adjacent to the road are addressed. Similarly, Cornell is waiting for Duffield’s construction to be completed before it performs serious maintenance work on the adjacent area of Campus Road.

Ithaca faces its own problems with road maintenance. According to Ferrel, a lot of the maintenance budget comes from capital projects, projects which borrow money for their funds and which target long term construction instead of routine maintenance. Ferrel said that this budgeting has made the city fall behind on road maintenance.

The damage has not escaped students. “The main roads are fine, but the small ones are bumpy and not well maintained,” Vitale said.

Although it is not yet a serious problem, Ferrel said that the city is already “seeing the effect of delayed maintenance” and predicted that the damage could become permanent if left unchecked for another 10 years. He said that this year’s budget relies less on capital projects, however, and that the city hopes to resume regular maintenance of its roads. Ferrel said this year is better than last, which was particularly harsh for the roads.

Archived article by Yuval Shavit

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