On St. Paul's Shepard Road, which carries 15,000 vehicles a day between Hwy. 5 and Interstate 35E, the potholes have won.
Rather than futilely continuing to patch and patch again, only to have freezing snowmelt and rainwater pop it all out, officials this week installed orange "rough roads" signs and lowered the posted speed limit to 35, down from 50 mph.
"It is frustrating for motorists and our staff alike," St. Paul Public Works Director Sean Kershaw said. "Our street maintenance crews have been patching this section repeatedly, all winter long. They will patch it one day, and the next day they are back in the same spot because the plowing has knocked everything loose or the patch has already crumbled to gravel due to the underlying conditions of the road."
The reality across much of the metro area is that these last weeks of winter with heavy snows, followed by warming, followed by rain, then freezing again are creating potholes that are not only deeper and wider but also more resistant to treatment. From alleys to long stretches of major thoroughfares in Bloomington, Minneapolis and St. Paul, Star Tribune readers on Twitter reported not just problem potholes here and there Friday but blocks-long stretches of potholes.
Part of the problem can be attributed to timing, said Lisa Hiebert, a spokeswoman for St. Paul Public Works. It's still too cold for St. Paul to fire up its hot-mix asphalt plant, which usually happens in April, and the cold mix used for winter patching won't take hold.
"It's kind of like taking Oreo crumbs and trying to spread frosting on it," Hiebert said. "It's not going to hold together."
Brittany Norberg and her husband live on W. Jessamine Avenue in St. Paul, not far from the border with Falcon Heights. "We drive extremely slow, like 2 miles per hour," she said because the potholes are so bad on a two-block stretch of her street.
But not everyone does, Norberg said.
"Some people get behind someone going that slow and they get angry and whip past," she said. "Then they hit the potholes, and they're hitting them hard."
At Capitol City Station on Shepard Road, owner Todd Knudten and area resident Robert Orth shared their frustrations with the chronically poor conditions of the road and its seemingly unbeatable potholes.
"Every year, they fill them with asphalt, but it's like putting a Band-Aid on cancer," Orth said. "It's dangerous."
Knudten said that despite Shepard Road being heavily used, "It doesn't seem this road is a priority. "
He said the only way St. Paul will be able to get ahead on Shepard is to completely rebuild the roadway. Patching isn't enough.
"Why isn't the problem solved? It's not rocket science," he said. "All of the stuff they're throwing in the holes now is popping out of the hole in about an hour."
On that point, he appears to have an ally in Kershaw. But despite the Public Works director saying the same things that previous Public Works directors have said — that many of the city's roads need a complete rebuild — officials acknowledge it's unlikely to happen anytime soon.
The money just isn't there. In fact, the city's street reconstruction budget is now on a 124-year cycle.
In December, St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter with City Council support proposed adding a 1% sales tax to goods and services sold in St. Paul to improve the capital city's notoriously bad roads and aging park facilities. That increase over 20 years would infuse nearly $1 billion into the city's capital budget — with $738 million going to rebuilding and improving roads. But the city first must convince state lawmakers, then voters.
According to a 2019 study by Public Works, without additional funding, city-owned arterial and collector streets will drop to "very poor" condition from the current condition of "fair to poor" in the next 20 years.
The alarm has been sounded before. In 2014, John Maczko, then-St. Paul city engineer, said the city, county and state needed to pump more money into rebuilding St. Paul's 900 miles of roads or the bone-jarring potholes would continue.
At the time, Maczko said St. Paul needed another $20 million a year over its road rebuilding budget of $12.5 million to get all its streets to a passing grade. Hiebert said the gap now is more like $30 million per year.
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