RICHMOND -- With one-third of the city's streets in poor or failed condition and bleak long-term budget constraints making the problem worse, city leaders want to gauge the public's appetite for new taxes to shore up the crumbling roads.

The City Council on Tuesday approved a $50,000 contract with a San Mateo-based polling and market research firm to probe public sentiment on the issue and devise a tax ballot measure for 2014 that would be most likely to pass.

City leaders said they hoped Godbe Research would develop a strategy to win new taxes at the ballot box -- always a difficult proposition -- targeted at overhauling hundreds of miles of local streets.

About one-third of all Richmond streets, like this corner of Ohio Avenue and 13th Street, are in poor condition. A sign near the corner prohibits vehicles
About one-third of all Richmond streets, like this corner of Ohio Avenue and 13th Street, are in poor condition. A sign near the corner prohibits vehicles weighing more than four tons, but residents say they routinely see tractor-trailers drive by. (Robert Rogers/Bay Area News Group)

"This really is the right way to do it," Councilman Tom Butt said of hiring the firm.

Council members Corky Boozé, Nat Bates and Jael Myrick expressed skepticism with the contract initially, but staff assured them that hiring a polling firm that uses proven methodologies would be more accurate than sending mailers to all Richmond voters.

Richmond long has had a reputation for having some of the Bay Area's craggiest streets, and city studies suggest the problem is getting worse. Public works officials concede that at least 30 neighborhoods are marred by failed, unsafe streets, but funding constraints render them powerless to act.

"In 2006, the people of Richmond made it clear that paving was a priority," associate city civil engineer Tawfic Halaby said last week. "The City Council made it a priority and pumped more money into paving."

In the ensuing four years, with the street budget at around $7 million per year, one-quarter to one-third of Richmond's roads received some kind of "treatment," from minor preventive treatments to major reconstructions.

But since 2010, funding for road maintenance has slowed to a trickle.

The budget for streets is somewhere less than $2.5 million per year, but city staff estimates that brining all streets up to good condition would cost about $100 million.

About 53 percent of the city's streets are in good condition or better, according to a city report, but about 32 percent are in "poor" or "failed" condition, a ratio that rises faster than city crews can fix them on a shoestring budget. A city poll found that street conditions are among the top concerns for local residents, along with crime.

All the options to improve the situation involve new taxes to pay for pavement.

Richmond's approach borrows an idea from El Cerrito. In 2008, voters there passed Measure A, a half-cent sales tax, to pay for streets. In three years, the city managed to drastically improve its local streets.

Godbe Research will ask residents not only whether they are willing to pay a tax but also probe for what type of tax would be most palatable to local voters, and in what amount. Parcel and sales taxes are candidates, several council members said Tuesday.

This article was produced in collaboration with RichmondConfidential.org, a nonprofit news service based in the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. Contact Robert Rogers at 510-262-2726 or rrogers@bayareanewsgroup.com