St. Paul City Council members want to look beyond property taxes for the millions of dollars needed to salvage the city’s deteriorating street network — a search that will include asking the Legislature.
After a sobering public works report on the condition of St. Paul’s 869 miles of city, county and state thoroughfares, council members said it’s time to make investments that will last beyond their tenure at City Hall.
“We should be planning for this year, but also five, 10 and 20 and 30 years out forward, and respecting the folks that will come after us,” said City Council President Amy Brendmoen.
Cities across Minnesota are facing similar maintenance challenges, but legislators say it’s unlikely there will be much money for local streets in a bonding year.
“I wouldn’t advise cities to look to the state of Minnesota for help through the Capital Investment Committee for additional assistance with local street infrastructure,” said Committee Chairman Sen. David Senjem, R-Rochester, whose own city needs $1 billion over the next 50 years to maintain its streets and sidewalks. “That has to be, in my view, the responsibility of the cities, and I suppose as painful as it is, it has to fall to that local property tax.”
Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis and the ranking minority member of the Senate Transportation Finance Committee, said the state will probably do some bonding for local roads in the next session but said relying on that pool of money is “no way to run a transportation system.”
“You’ve got to do planning over a long-term horizon,” he said.
St. Paul City Council members are hesitant to raise the property tax levy in 2020 after double-digit increases during the past two years and said they want a dedicated funding source to pay for street maintenance.
“I do not think we can rely on the general fund to continue to support this in any way,” said Council Member Rebecca Noecker, noting that St. Paul faces other pressing needs, including affordable housing. “If we continue to look to the general fund as one of our main sources, streets are going to lose out every time.”
Though city leaders are entering budget season — Mayor Melvin Carter’s 2020 budget address is scheduled for Aug. 15 — Public Works Director Kathy Lantry said the department isn’t using the report to make a budget request.
“What we want to get to through this report is talking about how do we really think about a sustainable, long-term funding source for streets that is higher than what we currently have,” she said.
According to St. Paul’s public works report, which Lantry and City Engineer Paul Kurtz presented to council members Wednesday, the city needs to spend about $50 million a year on street maintenance to meet recommended pavement quality standards. Without that investment, 35% of St. Paul’s arterial streets will be in failed condition and nearly 90% of residential streets will be in poor, very poor, serious or failed condition by 2039, the report said.
St. Paul’s spending on residential street maintenance has remained largely stagnant since the 1990s. The breaking point has come, in part, because of a lack of investment by previous city councils, said Council Member Jane Prince.
“I want to be really clear that this is kind of a legacy issue, about 12 years of administrations that chose not to raise the levy to take advantage of increased property values at a time when our economy was in really good shape,” Prince said. “It’s really clear that part of how we got here was based on policies of the city 20 years ago.”
Council members on Wednesday mentioned seeking money from a variety of sources, including state local government aid. Municipal State Aid provides money for street projects, but only for up to 20% of streets in cities with populations over 5,000 — 147 of Minnesota’s 853 cities, according to the League of Minnesota Cities.
During the last legislative session, the league lobbied for a dedicated state funding source for city streets, legislation to allow cities to create street improvement districts, and grants for cities required to share the cost of trunk highway and county state-aid projects.
“I don’t think there’s any city that thinks the state should be solving the problem for us, but it would be helpful to have the state as better partners in the effort to keep the streets maintained properly and reconstructed as needed,” said Anne Finn, a transportation lobbyist with the league. “It’s really important for our whole state’s economy to have a transportation system that works, and like it or not, streets are a part of that.”