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How Party Affiliation Affects Road Paving In Louisville

The prospect of pulling onto a freshly paved road in your neighborhood may depend partly on the party affiliation of your Metro Council member.

Republican districts, predominantly situated in eastern Jefferson County, have historically been the bigger benefactors of Louisville Metro-backed paving work.

The reasons are tied to the council GOP's political cohesion, as well as differences in infrastructure needs and governmental makeup between Louisville's urban and suburban areas.

Despite a significant political minority, the nine-member GOP caucus has tallied, in total, 3 more miles of paving than their 17-member Democratic counterpart since 2011. Each year, residents in Republican council districts have, on average, more stretches of fresh asphalt laid than those living in more urban, Democratic council districts.

A recent push from the Metro Council to boost funding for road paving led to nearly double the number of roads being paved during the 2015 paving season compared with recent years, according to data from Metro Public Works.

The 2015 effort also led to more than double the amount of roadway miles repaired in the nine Republican districts compared with the 17 Democratic districts, the data show.

This is no coincidence, said councilman Kevin Kramer, a Republican who represents District 11.

About a decade ago, Republican council members decided they'd have a bigger impact on infrastructure repair if they pooled their annual allotment of $100,000 in capital infrastructure funds per district, said Kramer, who chairs the caucus.

"We can do a lot more," he said.

During the past five years, the nine Republican council members have spent 75 percent of their allotted capital infrastructure funds on resurfacing roads, Kramer said. The funds come from the city's capital budget and are allocated to each council member to help pay for projects or programming in their districts, according to council policy.

The pooled funds are transferred to Metro Public Works' paving budget and earmarked specifically for paving in Republican districts, Kramer said.

Public Works officials rely on a calculated assessment of road conditions to determine which roads are paved, according to a spokesman for the department. Roads rated lowest are considered in worst condition and paved first.

"We still believe Public Works should decide where the money is going to go," Kramer said. "But if the money is coming out of Republican capital infrastructure funds, then it needs to be spent in Republican districts."

Democratic council members don't pool their discretionary funding for such projects.

Republican members' dedication of discretionary funding to road paving is a supplement to the $13 million in funding already set aside for the work in the city's capital budget, he said.

"If we can't get folks on the other side of the aisle to agree to put money in the budget for roads, we still feel like roads are important," Kramer said. "So we put our capital infrastructure funds there."

Kramer said Republicans' augmented approach to road paving stems from a contrasting political philosophy.

"The government's primary responsibility is to take care of those things that individual citizens can't take care of by themselves," he said.

But Councilman Bill Hollander, a Democrat who represents District 9, dismissed the notion of conflicting views of political responsibility between the two parties. Infrastructure, along with public safety and amenities, is a top priority for all Metro Council members, regardless of political affiliation, he said.

"The bigger difference is the districts we represent," Hollander said.

Pooling the Democratic caucus' annual allotment of capital infrastructure funds would be an impractical approach to spending, Hollander said. The needs of Democratic council districts differ largely from Republican districts, which boast more recently developed suburban areas and include more independent cities that may do their own paving, he said.

Democratic districts are largely older and sometimes more historic, meaning the infrastructure within those districts has more immediate needs, he said.

Pooling funds, even for large projects that bring long stretches of fresh asphalt spanning multiple council boundaries, can lead to urgent needs going unmet, Hollander argued.

Capital infrastructure funds can also be directed to sidewalk and alleyway repair, as well as ensuring these public spaces are compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act, Hollander said.

He said urban areas, largely encompassed by Democratic districts, include more alleys and sidewalks than Republican districts, in which there are many more new developments, some of which are maintained by one of the nearly 80 suburban cities within Jefferson County.

Here's a map of those suburban cities:

And here's a map of Metro Council districts. Republican districts are shown in red:

Pooling discretionary funds for road paving can also leave certain projects in some council districts neglected for years while the pooled funds are spent elsewhere, Hollander said,.

Kramer acknowledged pooling discretionary funds can lead to yearly disparities among Republican districts. But if one district gets shorted on road work, he said it's likely a park or sidewalk will be repaired in the district in lieu of fresh pavement.

"This is infrastructure that all of our constituents benefit from," he said.

Democratic council members make it more difficult to fund large, expensive projects when they save capital infrastructure funds from year to year — instead of pooling funds and paying for a project at once, Kramer said.

"While it waits, inflation happens, cost of concrete goes up, cost of labor goes up," he said.

Kramer said it's obvious the Republicans' method is successful. But with a citywide road repair funding deficit of more than $120 million, there is much work left.

Hollander said he recognizes that. He touted the council's move last summer to pump nearly $5 million more into road-paving efforts. Council members are also considering a pair of proposals that could add to the road-paving budget from a $10 million budget surplus.

But Hollander said government spending responsibility goes beyond road maintenance, and each council member is the best steward of his or her discretionary funding — be that a choice to pool funds to get more roads paved or not.

"I don't think you can look at how efficient money is being spent solely by how many miles of streets are paved," he said.

WFPL News is partnering with Al Dia en America to provide Spanish-language versions of stories. To read this story in Spanish, click here.

Jacob Ryan is the managing editor of the Kentucky Center for Investigative reporting. He's an award-winning investigative reporter who joined LPM in 2014. Email Jacob at jryan@lpm.org.