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And You Thought the Highways Were Bad?

June 02, 2008 By Conrad deFiebre, Transportation Fellow

Of Minnesota's 132,000 miles of streets and roads, only about 12,000 are part of the state and interstate trunk highway system that gets the bulk of state and federal transportation funds. Most of the rest of the motor vehicle network is owned and maintained by counties, cities and townships and largely supported by property taxes -- $1.2 billion worth in 2005, the latest year figures are available.

 

Despite this huge ongoing investment, there are worrisome indications that these local byways are headed for the same kind of fiscal trouble already plaguing the state highway system -- which the Minnesota Department of Transportation says remains $2 billion a year short of adequate finding (despite new revenues enacted this year), which has seen its pavement conditions plummet and which last year suffered the deadly collapse of one of its busiest freeway bridges.

And that means a bumpier ride is also in store on many city streets, with little prospect of improvement on the horizon.

Minneapolis, with more than 1,000 of the state's 18,000 miles of city streets, has slashed its capital paving budget, which includes filling potholes, by more than half in just the past two years. St. Paul has reduced the frequency of street-sweeping and seal-coating as part of $1.3 million in planned public works budget cuts."We're building less, rebuilding less and doing the preventative maintenance on none, so we'll expect to see the conditions deteriorate even more," Mike Kennedy, Minneapolis' director of transportation maintenance and repair, told the St. Paul Pioneer Press. "Our renovation and reconstruction programs have gotten to the point where, in reality, if you look at 1,000 miles of streets and our ability to improve only 2-1/2 miles a year, it's almost like doing nothing. It's barely a drop in the bucket."

Because of the budget squeeze and the surging cost of petroleum-based paving materials, Minneapolis practically abandoned its seal-coating program in 2003, the year state aid to cities was gutted. It's cut the number of its pothole-patching crews from 10 in 2002 to seven this year.To no one's surprise and the consternation of many, the drivability of Minneapolis streets has steadily declined over the past decade. Pothole complaints this winter and spring were up 150 percent over last year. Pavement on the city's arterial streets averages 35 years old.

While a large majority of county engineers are reporting deteriorating conditions on their roads and bridges, it's unclear how many other Minnesota municipalities are experiencing the same street maintenance woes as the state's two biggest cities. The League of Minnesota Cities hasn't collected data on the issue. In Bloomington, Minnesota's fifth-biggest city, "we're not being severely impacted - yet,'' said Larry Tschida, public works maintenance superintendent. "But 2009 and '10 might be a different story."

Bloomington's 350 miles of streets still get a seal-coat every seven years and an overlay every 28 years, he said.

So, if you're looking for a smooth ride on city streets, head for Bloomington, at least for now. And avoid the chassis-busting routes of Minneapolis and St. Paul. Or, better yet, raise your voice in favor of the public investments we need for the high-quality infrastructure Minnesotans used to take for granted. Our safety and our prosperity depend on it.


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