At 8:30 a.m. sharp on Thursday, Kurt Dornfeld fired up the leaf blower to start blasting dirt and debris from the potholes and divots that pocked the right lane of southbound Robert Street. Within minutes, the asphalt truck and roller were there, and Dornfeld’s co-workers started shoveling, raking and flattening steaming bituminous.
By the end of the day, foreman Shavonne Glaser said, the St. Paul repair crew hoped to smooth out 2 miles of car-rattling, curse-inducing potholes from Fillmore to Annapolis — one of seven to 12 city crews dedicated daily to patching the city’s rough roads and, they hope, soothing drivers’ wrath.
“Everybody’s giving us some guff,” Glaser said, as she drove the roller over the black patches her workers left behind. “I don’t blame them, the roads are rough.”
So rough that many motorists in Minneapolis and St. Paul are barking out words like “worst ever,” venting fury online and with telephone complaint centers at levels seldom seen.
For crews like Glaser’s, enjoying their first warm stretch of weather this spring — warmth that should finally allow the patches to take hold — it means full days of racing to get ahead of a crisis. For officials in charge of easing that crisis, it may be an impossible task — at least at current funding levels.
St. Paul city engineer John Maczko was handed the interim job of overseeing the city’s streets last winter after snowplowing complaints prompted the mayor to fire the previous street maintenance chief. Now, Maczko has to find a way to solve the mess.
A call for road reconstruction
But, he said, unless the city, county and state pour more money into complete road reconstruction, hard winters will continue to lead to bone-jarring springs.
“We’re paving streets by the shovelful right now,” he said. “And that’s not effective, and it’s not efficient.”
St. Paul has about 900 miles of streets. Of that, about 600 miles are city-owned, residential roads and about 300 are some combination of city-county, city-state and regional roadways, Maczko said. The city spends about $12.5 million a year on complete reconstruction of city roads and another $7 million reconstructing those other roads with state funds.
For all of that, only about 9 to 11 miles of road are completely rebuilt each year.
Maczko said an additional $20 million a year — doubling what is currently spent for complete rebuilds — would get the city’s roads to a passing grade. Without that, he said, crews are forced to patch and overlay, overlay and patch, as roads continue to crumble beneath. But, like a homeowner putting fresh paint on rotted wood, the problem eventually catches up.
“Winter is not the problem,” he said. “Our infrastructure is the problem.”
Glaser’s crew — with Dornfeld spraying 450-degree liquid asphalt into holes and cracks as a kind of primer, along with Craig Johnson, Rick Wallenberg on the rake and Tom Garvey on the shovel — does what it can.
It’s hard, dirty, dangerous work. Dornfeld’s boots are caked with tar. Johnson is missing part of a left arm, thanks to a 91-year-old woman who plowed into him three years ago on Fairview Avenue as he and other workers were cleaning the road.
As the others keep up a steady pace of shovel, fill and flatten, Johnson keeps an eye on the traffic speeding by, occasionally yelling at a driver who veers too close. In just the crew’s first hour and a half on Robert Street, at least a half dozen cars zoomed past uncomfortably close and much too fast.
“I can’t do what I was doing,” the 44-year-old father of two said. He used to work the shovel. “Now, I’m here for safety. I do as much as I can to help these guys out. They’re my brothers and sisters.”
Said Dornfeld, who ran for mayor last fall as a candidate who actually knows street maintenance: “These people have no clue what it’s like, standing in the street as cars go 50 past you. Everybody’s in a hurry. Slow down, calm down and look up. We’re just trying to fix your street.”