Pothole season in Minnesota: 2009

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As sure as the appearance of the first robins of spring, potholes are popping out all over Minnesota these days. It makes a rough, wasteful ride for motorists (the American Society of Civil Engineers reports that bad pavement costs Americans $67 billion a year in extra auto maintenance), and an even rougher time for local officials trying to fill big holes with too little revenue.

“It’s a very significant problem,” said Anne Finn, transportation and public safety lobbyist with the League of Minnesota Cities. “Generally, cities are really struggling to maintain their systems.”

After a winter of road-wrecking freeze-thaw cycles, the struggle has been getting tougher because of state aid cuts, a sagging economy, aging streets and bridges and other challenges. For example, Minneapolis is paying back $2.5 million in fines to 16,000 people whose cars were photographed running traffic signals (i.e. breaking the law) before courts ruled the city’s red-light cameras illegal.

Some cities are canceling needed street work rather than forcing layoffs of police and firefighters, Finn said. It makes short-term sense, she added, but deferred maintenance just piles on costs of fixing deteriorated infrastructure in the future.

“By the time it looks like there’s a problem with the street, it probably needs to be reconstructed,” Finn said. That’s the most expensive alternative to smart preventative maintenance, filling potholes or resurfacing.

In fact, said Dave Sonnenberg, legislative liaison for the City Engineers Association of Minnesota, today’s growing crop of potholes is simply “an accumulation of a couple of decades of semi-neglect. We just haven’t been taking care of the pavement as thoroughly as we should.”

Regular seal-coating and prompt filling of cracks prevents potholes from forming in the first place, he said. When those steps are short-changed, potholes proliferate.

This week is the peak of the pothole season, said Mike Kennedy, head of transportation maintenance and repair for Minneapolis, a time when rains wash away temporary patches and crews are just starting the permanent repairs that will occupy them through the summer.

“It’s going to take a while,” Kennedy said. “People will have to be patient. But they’re starting to really notice the long-term problem.”

City streets make up 22,000 miles of Minnesota’s 141,000 miles of motorways. They extend nearly twice as far as the more heavily traveled state highway system, which gets about seven times as much funding from gasoline taxes and vehicle registration fees. And only 3,200 miles of streets in just the 140 Minnesota cities over 5,000 in population are eligible to get anything from those user charges. Unfortunately, last year’s increases in the gas and tab levies have done little more than keep revenues virtually flat as driving and car-buying have declined.

Some cities, meanwhile, spend all of their user money on required local-share costs of state or county highway projects, leaving nothing for the street grid, Sonnenberg said.

The alternatives to gas and tab user fees for city street maintenance and repair are limited generally to property taxes and special assessments – neither an easy sell with the electorate. For years, Minnesota public works leaders have proposed life-cycle funding of street maintenance through annual property fees, but they’ve gained no traction with the Legislature, partly because such fees aren’t federally tax-deductible, as property taxes are.

Another tack has been taken by Minneapolis officials, who dedicated $27.5 million to a five-year program of arterial street overlays and repairs to bridges, streetlights and bicycle paths. The money comes from a $40 million reserve fund established via sale of the city’s interest in the downtown Hilton hotel.

“There were a lot of other hands out for that money,” Kennedy said, “but the mayor and City Council decided to spend it on the infrastructure.”

It was a bold step, all the more so because about half the total project costs will be born via special assessments of adjacent properties. Only about 25 miles of Minneapolis’ total of 1,000 miles of streets will be upgraded over the five years. But it’s a start, and Minnesotans have to start somewhere to catch up on preservation of the marvelous infrastructure legacy left us by earlier generations.