Minneapolis: Better city streets come with big costs

  • Article by: STEVE BRANDT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 25, 2011 - 8:33 PM

Minneapolis officials say bringing streets up to snuff will more than double the city's annual paving costs.

Minneapolis, city leaders have heard your complaints about crumbling city streets.

But are you ready to pay the bill?

The city needs to more than double the $15 million it spends annually on paving to arrest the deterioration of its roads, according to a new assessment. It's the first such study since 1997.

That estimate by the Department of Public Works is intended to spark a City Council debate on how much the city can afford to spend on roads, bridges and other big-ticket items such as traffic signals and streetlights.

The study, commissioned by department director Steve Kotke, found that the city would have to raise spending by $14 million annually through 2030 to halt the decline in residential and arterial roads alone, as measured by the city's pavement condition index.

Adding fixups for more lightly traveled streets serving industrial-warehouse areas would cost another $4 million. Ditto for improving the city's alleys, which are in worse condition than streets, bringing the road total to $22 million. While city-owned bridge repairs are close to being funded, streetlights could use another $5 million and traffic signals another $3.1 million annually to do more than emergency repairs, the department said.

Council Member Elizabeth Glidden called Tuesday's assessment "very sobering." Sandra Colvin Roy, the council's point person on public works, said the council will need to set priorities for any spending before it goes looking for more money.

If the city used traditional funding methods, most of the money would come from borrowing. Mayor R.T. Rybak wants to borrow $45 million for street work over the next five years. All of the city's taxpayers would then pay to retire most of that debt, but property owners benefiting from specific projects would also pay assessments. The study looked at some new methods to raise street money, including one that Colvin Roy wants to explore: tacking a new fee onto sales taxes.

Kotke's deputy, Heidi Hamilton, who oversaw the study, said one key lesson is that delaying street maintenance only makes it more expensive.

Residential streets make up two-thirds of the city's road network. They're in the best condition of any type of street, mainly thankst to a comprehensive residential paving program the city began in the 1960s. They rank at 71 for paving condition on a scale of 1 to 100, and have the lowest share of streets rated in poor condition of any category. The state-aid streets that carry the bulk of traffic are rated at 65, compared with 52 for other streets and 50 for alleys.

The study found that at current spending levels, the condition of arterials will stay steady for several years, but then drop within 10 years. They're getting most of the city's paving dollars under Rybak's current accelerated infrastructure program, and would get the bulk of money from his proposed borrowing for paving.

In contrast, the condition of residential streets would drop sharply at current spending levels, hitting a rating below 30, or "very poor" within 15 years. Alleys and industrial-warehouse streets would also fall to even worse ratings close to 10.

But boosting spending to the department's preferred levels would raise the quality of arterials from a fair rating to good, with sharp increases in the quality of alley and industrial-warehouse streets. Residential street conditions would stabilize about where they are now.

Rybak recently has tried to boost spending on paving amid mounting complaints over potholes. But that's for major paving work, not the sealcoating or crack-sealing that can prolong a street's life. Spokesman John Stiles said that "while our situation is serious, it's not unique" and is being faced by many cities, and Rybak expects his proposal for higher spending to improve conditions.

Steve Brandt • 612-673-4438

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