Drink tap water, navigate streets or toss some trash in Minneapolis and you’ve encountered the daily work of Steve Kotke, one of the most important figures at City Hall.
Kotke recently announced he is leaving the helm of public works next summer after a 27-year career with the city. The amiable engineer oversees an operating budget of $326 million — more than twice that of any other city department — and 955 employees.
He says he loves the job, which he took on about a decade ago, but is ready to step away from the full-time obligations of keeping the pipes running and the streets clear.
“I’m pretty much thinking seven days a week,” said Kotke, a Minneapolis native. “When it snows, I have to deal with that. When it rains, I have to deal with that.”
Plenty has changed since Kotke joined the city in 1989, overseeing street reconstructions. His tenure has included the creation of special busways on Marquette and 2nd Avenues downtown and the launch of single-sort recycling. There have also been many less noticeable changes, such as reducing the amount of wastewater discharged into the Mississippi River.
City Council President Barb Johnson said Kotke was successful in the post because he was professional, up-to-date on changing dynamics of city life and willing to work with people when they had problems.
“I think he’s been a fabulous public works director,” Johnson said. “People don’t realize how important the public works department is.”
From roads to sewers
Kotke, a University of Minnesota graduate who began his career designing bridges, said he expects to keep working but has nothing specific lined up.
Reflecting on his tenure with the city, he said road projects have shifted vehicle-focused designs with little public input to sometimes highly contentious projects that accommodate competing constituencies — walkers, cyclists, buses and cars.
“It’s much more balanced,” he said. “There are just times where I have to say no to people who are concerned about traffic issues, and there’s times where I have to say no to our bicycle advocates. So that’s the hard part.”
Building the bus lanes on Marquette and 2nd Avenues was one of the trickiest projects Kotke tackled. The multiagency effort required consolidating express bus traffic, reducing lanes for cars, nixing bicycle lanes and negotiating with unhappy downtown businesses.
The project, which ultimately secured more than $30 million in federal funds because of its early planning, helped prompt Kotke to add a new division to public works focused on transportation planning.
He said single-sort recycling, something he pushed for after taking over public works in 2006, was “probably one of the most popular things that we’ve done in a long time.”
But a lot of Kotke’s time is focused on a less visible activity: processing water.
The city converts about 57 million gallons a day of Mississippi River water into drinking water — serving about 500,000 people in Minneapolis and nearby suburbs. It also maintains 820 miles of sanitary sewers and 565 miles of storm pipes, which usher waste and rain water to the Metropolitan Council’s treatment plant and the Mississippi River, respectively.
They have sealed old sanitary pipes, redirected water on private roofs away from sanitary sewers, and used smoke to locate and block remaining underground system links.
“We’ve reduced the amount of rain water that goes into our sanitary system,” Kotke said. “And by doing that we’ve pretty much eliminated overflows into the Mississippi River.”
Kotke said a major challenge facing his successor will be ramping up investment for needed improvements to the city’s approximately 1,000-mile street system. He estimates the annual funding gap for that work is about $30 million.
“We don’t have to address this tomorrow, but by the mid-2020s, if we don’t increase the amount of funding we’re putting into our street infrastructure, it’s going to start failing,” Kotke said.