DULUTH – Newly minted Mayor Emily Larson gripped the steering wheel as she eased her Pontiac Vibe over one of her city’s rough streets. The small car bounced and wobbled atop a mishmash of loose pavement, gaping holes and heaving squares of old asphalt.
“Wow,” she muttered, unable to dodge all the bumps as she jerked the wheel, her keys jangling from the ignition. As she’d said before: “There’s only so long you can put Band-Aids on something that’s in need of an operation.”
Spring is pothole season in Minnesota, when the ground vacillates between freezing and thawing, pushing up pavement and then swallowing it. Along with bumpy rides and dented tire rims, it also brings extra headaches to mayors and other officials in cities across the state with too many streets that have been patched when they’ve needed to be rebuilt.
That work, deferred for too long due to a lack of funds, is reaching a critical point in many communities, city officials say. Although state leaders have talked about making roads and bridges a priority this legislative session, city governments are awaiting answers from the Capitol to see what the promises yield.
“Things are at an all-time low point for cities trying to keep up with their street maintenance and reconstruction,” said Anne Finn, transportation lobbyist with the League of Minnesota Cities.
If there is a ground zero for streets needing attention, many residents in this hilly Lake Superior city will quickly volunteer that it’s Duluth.
On a recent afternoon, Zak Radzak drove his Ford F150 near Piedmont Elementary School, an air freshener flapping from the rearview mirror with every dip of the rough pavement.
Radzak, 32, drives the city’s streets every day as he goes to construction sites and businesses in his job as a Teamsters Local president. He e-mails his council member routinely to complain.
Many of the city’s main thoroughfares get attention, Radzak noted. The trouble lies in the many miles of lightly traveled residential streets.
“It’s a travesty, actually. It’s embarrassing,” he said as his giant truck bounced along a sidewalk-less, curbless route where he sees children sometimes walk or ride bikes to school. “There’s chunks of road laying on the side of the road in places.”
Like most residents in Duluth, he understands why the streets are bad.
Starting in 2009, the city lost about $6 million a year that it used for street maintenance when the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa stopped sharing revenue with the city from its downtown casino — a move later upheld by court decisions.
Duluth’s topography also doesn’t help.
The city, built on a hill and extending 26 miles long, is responsible for 478 miles of streets — roughly half the miles of Minneapolis streets, though it has less than a quarter of the population. Most of the city’s roads are built on hard rock and clay, which holds more water than other types of soil, raising more havoc during freeze-thaw cycles.
The city’s steep grade makes drainage more tricky, too — especially during heavy rainfalls, when water washes down the hill, threatening erosion.
The age of the streets also works against the city. Water mains beneath the streets, half of which are 80 years old or older, have been springing leaks, causing the pavement above to crumble or forcing the city to destroy the roads in order to repair them.
“Nothing lasts forever,” said public works director Jim Benning.
When the city tears up and rebuilds streets, officials try to make sure they will last as long as possible by replacing infrastructure beneath the streets and digging down an extra foot for the roadbed, laying down fabric and hauling in sand for a base before adding crushed rock and asphalt or concrete.
Fixing the streets has been such a common refrain in Duluth in recent years that former mayor Don Ness sang a parody about it, crooning, “potholed streets, they got me down, got me down.”
Before he left office, Ness expressed regret at not doing more to address the problem.
It’s a sting that public officials are feeling throughout the state.
Minnesota’s 147 cities with populations over 5,000 get some money from collections of state gas tax and other fees but can only spend it on certain thoroughfares. The remaining 706 cities with under 5,000 residents received a one-time allotment last year of $12.5 million.
In general, city residential streets are not part of any state funding formula, Finn explained. “The cities are on their own to take care of those.”
A 2012 state Transportation Finance Advisory Committee report estimated that Minnesota municipalities need about $400 million a year to improve streets.
The League of Minnesota Cities is seeking almost $60 million a year to help get municipalities “back on schedule and fix some of the most critical problems,” Finn said. Half would go to fix residential streets in cities with fewer than 5,000 residents, the other half to cities with more.
Deferring street work, which has been done in many places for several years, “makes the city engineers crazy,” Finn said, because they know it will lead to bigger problems.”
“The key to all of this is timely maintenance,” Finn said. “For every 1 dollar spent on timely maintenance, a road authority saves 7 dollars in repairs.”
Larson literally feels the issue of poor streets under her tires every day when she pulls out of her Duluth driveway; The street in front of her house is gravel.
Under the melt of a spring thaw, it had turned mushy, with veins of trickling water running across it.
Right after she was elected mayor, Larson said, a relative suggested maybe that street would finally be repaired.
“I just absolutely guaranteed my street will never get done,” Larson said, smiling. “My poor neighbors.”
It’s going to take more than one leader to fix it all, Radzak said. “I like Emily. I think she’s going to do a lot of good for this city. But I think any politician is kidding themselves if they say they’re going to tackle the street problem in Duluth.”
Radzak said he would be OK with paying more to improve the streets; he’s had to replace sway bar links on vehicles because of the rough roads, he said — and that is expensive, too.
Larson, a former city councilor who was inaugurated as mayor in January, cited infrastructure first among the issues she wants to tackle. As soon as she got into office, she set up meetings with state and federal officials to make a case for Duluth’s needs.
Recently, Larson proudly announced that she expects to double the amount of street miles resurfaced this year, from 5½ to more than 11, using a city budget surplus from better-than-expected sales tax collections and other one-time revenue.
“It’s not a very glamorous story to say I’m going to spend it on streets,” Larson said. “But to me, it felt really critical.”
She said she realizes, though, that the city needs a long-term solution, and it can’t bank on state government coming to the rescue.
“One of my campaign commitments was to look at every strategy,” Larson said. “It’s on my shoulders now.”
Staff writer Steve Brandt contributed to this report.