The Road to Revelations
If you’ve ever connected with RoadBotics on LinkedIn, retweeted a RoadWay update on Twitter, or caught the latest Tips with Todd on YouTube, you’re familiar with my work! I’m Sam, the person behind the curtain of our social media.
When I joined the RoadBotics team, I didn’t know much about local government. I had taken this hidden part of my world for granted.
Examining my knowledge gaps now, I see that I have benefited from it greatly. Most specifically, from their hard work funding, planning, and maintaining our road network.
For example, public transportation was my main method of commuting for years. Armed with Google Maps and ample time, I could always find a way to get where I needed to go.
After purchasing my first car (a teal Honda Civic), I took to the roads. But it wasn’t until this past year that I fully respected the work that went into maintaining the routes allowing me to arrive safely and efficiently at my destinations, whether I was using public transportation or driving myself.
My time at RoadBotics has introduced me to the intricacies of Public Works. I’ve been immersed in the responsibilities of this piece of local government. My work has helped me to understand the challenges they face in keeping their communities running.
When I discovered that my community also happens to be one of RoadBotics’s long-standing clients (three years and counting), I became curious how my roads were funded and maintained. I decided to investigate the inner workings of my hometown’s road network.
Welcome to the Burbs
Bethel Park is a suburban community south of Pittsburgh, PA, and home to 32,313 residents, one of those being yours truly! I was surprised to discover that Bethel Park is the 17th largest community in Pennsylvania.
The Municipality is run on a Council-Manager form of government. We have an elected Mayor and an elected council member for each of the community’s nine wards, along with a Municipal Manager who oversees the daily operations (1).
Bethel Park has many divisions to manage like police protection, infrastructure maintenance and construction, recreation and leisure, public access television, zoning regulation, building inspection, wastewater treatment, and refuse collection.
When I think of ways that I have first-hand experience with Bethel Park’s local government sectors, a memory of the monstrous snowstorm of 2010 bubbles to the surface.
I had been with a friend of mine who cared for many horses. Because of the snow, we were unable to get them water. Not knowing what to do, we called the Bethel Park Fire Department for help. After hours of shoveling snow, we carved out a path that allowed us to use a fire hydrant to provide water to our four-legged friends. It filled us with a new appreciation for the services our community was able to provide.
But how does Bethel Park make sure these departments are organized and funded?
I learned the Municipality works off of a 5-year Capital Improvement Plan. They share this plan’s current status with their citizens every year in the Comprehensive Annual Financial Report (CAFR).
The current 5-year plan shows how $26.8 million in capital appropriations for 2019 will be dispersed. These funds aren’t set in stone and are able to be altered under specific circumstances (2).
But circling back to my curiosity about our roads: Just how many roads did Bethel Park manage, and how did that $26.8 million contribute to its upkeep?
Home is Where the Roads Are
I was impressed that Bethel Park manages “over 152 lane miles of roadway which includes both municipal and state-owned highways”, and each year they assess their roads to have a reference point to track past progress and plan future changes (3).
This requires a team of trained personnel and the necessary equipment to conduct each survey.
Like the 5-Year Capital Improvement Plan, they also follow a 5-Year Road Improvement Program, which lists the roads that will be repaved each fiscal year.
My Taxes in Action
This new interest in local government showed me how my taxes shape the community around me.
Remember the $26.8 million Bethel Park has to keep the community functioning?
In 2019 & 2020, approximately $7 million of that was dedicated to Public Works.
Of Bethel Park’s five funding divisions, the three that contribute to Public Works Operations are:
- General Fund, financed through Real Estate Taxes (10%) and Earned Income Taxes (0.9%), and covers the operating expenses of Bethel Park.
- Capital Improvement Fund, which provides for projects that fall under the category of capital improvement, like road maintenance (4).
- Liquid Fuels Fund, an amount that funds road improvements in addition to improvements to “Community Services, Municipal Buildings, and Parks and Recreation” (4). I knew many local governments use gas taxes to fund road repairs, but I found out that Bethel Park’s Liquid Fuel Tax is specifically designated for use on street lighting and snow removal and can only be used on state roads under the municipality’s care.
What Do Roads Do for Me?
The roads in my community provide access to bustling local businesses, like the unique coffee shop in the renovated schoolhouse down the road or the pizza shop with the best gluten-free crust that isn’t on the menu. And the bonus is that when I buy a cup of coffee or indulge in a slice on a Friday night, I’m supporting my local economy.
Getting to those businesses safely is important to me, too. Roads that are carefully monitored and cared for have fewer potholes, better severe weather maintenance, and clearer signage – which translates into less cost to drivers over time. While it differs for each location, on average, bad roads can cost car owners on average $1,900 in repairs per year (7)!
Having access to good roads used to seem simple, but now I am aware that the relationship between transportation access and the economy is important for any community.
A location is more appealing to homeowners and renters because of ease of access – which can lead to more residents and foster more local business growth.
The Power of Local
Thanks to my research, I have a new perspective on how my life has been impacted by the local government around me.
I now carefully consider the lofty goals and enormous sums of money thrown around in impressive national bills. I understand it is the daily hustle and bustle of our communities that have a more direct connection to our lives.
Since the onset of COVID-19, I’ve been spending a lot more time in my neighborhood and exploring closer to home. I’ve come to appreciate even more the accessibility and resources in my community.
I plan to continue learning about my local government, and I encourage you to do the same. In the meantime, you can continue on this route and explore RoadBotics’s latest case study for Bethel Park.