DULUTH — Duluth Mayor Emily Larson wants to make the most of the billions of dollars Minnesota is expected to get to address water infrastructure and other issues as part of the new federal money headed to the state.
Larson said she promoted President Joe Biden's infrastructure package as it made its way through Congress and Duluth plans to leverage "every penny."
"Having the federal government step back into ownership and responsibility of infrastructure is absolutely monumental," said Larson, speaking for the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Cities Initiative, a coalition of U.S. and Canadian mayors dedicated to protecting and restoring the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River. "For so long, decades really, municipalities have been left to bear the full brunt of infrastructure investments."
The spending on water issues is crucial, coalition officials say, with money for clean drinking water, bridge repair and fortification against extreme weather. In July, Great Lakes mayors released survey findings that showed coastal damages from climate change will cost Minnesota at least $115 million over the next five years. Duluth has already paid millions to fortify its shoreline, and essentially, the city, from increasingly violent Lake Superior storms.
The stakes could hardly be higher for Duluth, as city officials have struggled for decades over how to pay for battered roads, bridges and other infrastructure needs.
How else could money from the federal infrastructure measure aid Duluth? Here is an excerpt of a conversation with Larson.
What are the biggest infrastructure issues facing the city?
A. Water is a huge need. We just spent $22 million on Lakewalk and seawall repairs as related to climate change. We have lead water pipes. We are completely compliant with the (Environmental Protection Agency) and we still have probably $50 million of lead service line replacement we could do with public pipes. Some of our pipes are from 1929. Drinking water is safe, but we want to get at those lead pipes and replace them. That also saves energy. We have a leaky (city water supply) system. We spend a lot of energy pumping water and if we don't lose water, we don't have to pump as much.
Would the city consider using this money to assist households with replacing lead pipes?
A. That would be my best hope. We still have 5,000 publicly owned lead service lines in the city of Duluth, and it costs $8,000 to 10,000 to replace each. The incidence of lead pipes is really distributed pretty equally around the city and is not concentrated in certain neighborhoods. But it will be very expensive.
Minnesota expects $302 million for bridge repairs and replacement. How could that affect Duluth?
A. While the (Can of Worms) interchange project is not a Duluth project, it's my understanding that that project could go from three to two years. That is significant. It's completely debilitating to our neighborhoods. In some ways, it's freeing up a lot of interesting, neat space in the Lincoln Park neighborhood, but it's certainly inconvenient. So to go from three summers to two on a project like that — a $343 million project — that's a huge benefit. It becomes an immediate financial gain because not only are we moving people through, that's a huge interchange for commerce, trade and for getting things on and off the docks and goods around the country.
There is $16 million in need with just the Aerial Lift Bridge. It's not necessarily in poor condition, but it does need certain upgrades and maintenance. That's a hefty price tag for a bridge that's in pretty high-functioning condition.
In what other ways can this bill help the city?
A. There is $10 billion (nationwide) to address PFAS, a chemical emerging in terms of prominence. (PFAS are known as "forever chemicals," which don't break down.) When we start learning about these new chemical presences we start learning about where they are and what we can do to remediate them.
The infrastructure development program is a huge deal to us, having the largest incoming port by volume on the Great Lakes. We have a story to make about every single one of these issues. We are kind of this incubator and model for how this infrastructure bill can be put to use.