Cities can’t afford their roads anymore

It’s not hard to figure out which cities in these parts take care of their infrastructure and which ones just — as they say — “kick the can down the road” from year to year until bigger fixes they can’t afford are required.

Sure, it was a lousy winter that was perfect for potholes. But this year’s potholes are also last year’s potholes which were fixed with Band Aids. Some cities have worse potholes than others because some cities have no choice but to let roads go to pot.

Typically, residents would rise up against the roadway negligence, but, as the Star Tribune points out today, there’s a penalty for doing so given St. Paul’s method (used by many cities) by which major street repairs are financed: they hit the residents, who are already paying property taxes, with high assessments.

But why should residents pay so much for roads that are “arterial”, of greater use for drivers who don’t live in the neighborhoods being assessed?

In Maplewood, meanwhile, Bill Perditzman got tired of the roads more fit for a war zone. He started fixing the streets himself, the Pioneer Press reports.

Bags of asphalt were on sale at Menard’s, he says. So he bought 27 of them at $6.95 a bag. Some neighbors chipped in.

It’s not a permanent fix, of course. The streets have reached a point where they need to be repaved. But it’s better than nothing.

Maplewood City Council member Maplewood City Council Member Bryan Smith says this is what happens when people are upset both about high taxes and poor roads. (Cities don’t get much from the state’s gas tax)

And the public works director in the city provides the same math that St. Paul struggles with. It has 135 miles of road, and money to repave about 3.5 miles of them a year.

Maplewood is also considering a new funding mechanism.

Assessing residents.

Related: This commentary is really boring. I hope you read it (Star Tribune)

  • Rob

    I think our only hope is that some of our monopsonies will step in and pay for road repair and upkeep.

    Imagine if Amazon, Uber or Apple were to pony up; they could have the roads named after them, paint their logos all over the roads, and promote their actions via various media to show what swell corporate citizens they are.

  • BReynolds33

    But, without government, who would build the roads? /s

  • AL287

    It costs money and a lot of it and the only way to pay for it is with taxes collected on a regular basis.

    Everyone wants roads in good driving condition but they don’t want to pay for them but judging from the current condition of local and arterial roads, robbing Peter to pay Paul is not a permanent fix.

    Perhaps a statewide gas tax is not the panacea but a county by county sales tax on gasoline to fund local road repair.

    You can’t neglect gasoline taxes for more than ten years and not need a major increase to make up the shortfall with a large increase or an incremental increase over several years as Governor Walz is recommending.

    I suppose there is a silver lining to the pot hole dilemma—-people have to keep their eyes on the road instead of on their cell phones!

    The Party-of-No-New-Taxes has had its collective head in the sand starting with Tim Pawlenty and has only dug their heels in further as the years have progressed.

    Tim Walz is trying to make up for years of neglect and I don’t envy him the task.

    And another thing.

    The 2% provider tax that funds MinnesotaCare has broad support from the providers who pay the tax so just bite the bullet and approve it for another ten years or those very same medical providers will be after your hides for the millions of dollars lost for uncompensated care.

    • I do a lot of driving, of course, and one of the things I’ve noticed is that if I have to look and maneuver around potholes, I’m NOT seeing the larger picture ahead, or even the important peripheral view. It’s dangerous.

      • J Allen

        This is absolutely true. Bad road conditions distract drivers and potholes are definitely a distraction.

      • AL287

        You’re right.

        Because I drive the same routes every day to work I pretty much know where the potholes are but it is a distraction, nonetheless and unfortunately new ones seem to appear daily.

        I keep hoping the Minnesota House and Senate can come to the table with a willingness to compromise on the infrastructure and healthcare challenges facing our state.

        It’s time to stop stalling and get down to the business of all the people of Minnesota.

    • Jeff

      I think people are willing to accept tax increases if it’s explained well and they know what they’re getting. I think Walz is doing the best job he can at that and he just needs to keep hammering. But also The Party-of-No-Answers needs a realignment. It used to be if there was a need they actually compromised, but now that’s won’t happen when only one side wants to negotiate.

  • Mike Worcester

    I am not advocating this — not in the slightest, but it’s fascinating to note that maintaining gravel roads is much less expensive in the long term than do paved. During the Great Recession, there was scattered chatter about cities simply ripping up the asphalt and going gravel. I don’t believe much came of it.

    https://www.governing.com/topics/transportation-infrastructure/sl-dirt-roads.html

    And ty for noting that cities don’t get squat from the state gas tax. I’m thinking there are many who don’t realise that.

  • jon

    It has 135 miles of road, and money to repave about 3.5 miles of them a year.

    From conversations in my own town about unified trash collection, it was suggested that city roads last 20 years, (25 with unified trash collection since the streets only see heavy truck traffic on garbage day and they’d get 5-6 times less heavy truck traffic with on truck instead of 5-6 of them)

    So a reasonable amount of roads for the city to be paving per year would be about 5-7 miles… They still come up short, but not as bad at 3.5 out of 135 sounds.

    • They’ll last that long IF they’re maintained during that time. That’s the problem. There’s no ongoing maintenance. Even a neighborhood street that’s been repaved will begin to degrade within 3-5 years without preventive maintenance.

      • And then we have streets like Robert Street in downtown St. Paul, which might as well just be left as an open pit, it’s dug up so often for the utilities.

        • Jack

          That’s why they have those steel plates.

  • J Allen

    If Governor Walz wants to get Republicans on board for a gasoline tax increase, he could propose that half of that twenty cent per gallon increase go to funding the maintenance of local streets and roads. There’s certainly a need and given that people do buy gas and drive their own streets it’s fair enough that some of the gas tax revenue be spent on strictly local streets.

    • Mark Snyder

      I believe in the current proposal that 40% of the proposed gas tax increase would go to local streets and roads. Not sure if they can up that to 50% given that there’s a need to catch up on borrowing costs.

      • J Allen

        Thanks for the information! (And no thanks to former Governor Pawlenty for the bonding that was done during his tenure in office.)

  • Barton

    I wonder if the proper headline is: Citizens Don’t Want To Pay Actual Cost of Infrastructure?

    • Jeff

      I believe the root of all of this is actual wages haven’t increased in decades. People are squeezed all over and then govmnt shows up and wants to raise their taxes while wasting their money on something or somebody they don’t like.

      • Barton

        I agree with you completely.

      • Jay T. Berken

        “root of all of this is actual wages haven’t increased in decades. People are squeezed all over”

        The baby-boomers generation went through the biggest expansion in the history of man in their lifetime. They were to selfish to properly maintain the expansion of roads and services that expediently expanded under their watch. In your statement, you are looking at the current paying generations that is behind that wave of expansion.

        • J Allen

          The rapid growth after WWII of car-oriented suburbs and the corresponding construction of streets and highways is something no particular generation is responsible for. It was a collective decision on everyone’s part to use automobiles to get around on roads built to serve them, because people wanted that house in the suburbs and to be able to drive to work, drive to the shopping mall to buy stuff, and head out up north to the lake cabin to play.

          • Jay T. Berken

            And they did not set up a proper revenue source to pay for the proper maintenance of that infrastructure. Everything has a self life and everyone knows it.

            You deeply contradicted yourself into saying, “It was a collective decision on everyone’s part to use automobiles to get around on roads built to serve them, because people wanted that house in the suburbs and to be able to drive to work, drive to the shopping mall to buy stuff, and head out up north to the lake cabin to play“, but “corresponding construction of streets and highways is something no particular generation is responsible for“. It is not the fault of the person to be born in a generation such as the baby-boomer generation, but it is their fault to make the decision to expand in an inefficient manner and not pay for its maintenance along the way.

            Now that the next generations are coming into power and the power of the purse, they are at not fault of what decisions were made before them, but of what they make now. If they want to completely neglect the expansion that happened between 1940s to now, god bless them, but don’t expect that future generations will have a backlash on their decision.

          • J Allen

            You’re attributing something to a generation that’s linked to politics, particularly the anti-tax policies of the Republican Party. There’s a reason why former Governor Tim Pawlenty went with insufficient bond funding to pay for maintenance rather than raise the state gas tax, and why putting off fixes left many roads and bridges in substandard condition. Blaming it all on a generational divide is letting the politicians off the hook for what they’ve actually done.

          • Jay T. Berken

            I agree your assessment of Pawlenty, but he was in power for only (8) years. Everybody that drives in this state is required to pay for car insurance in case of an accident, why could they not pass a law mandating the insurance of the maintenance and integrity of the roads they drive on.

          • J Allen

            It’s basically the Republican Party, not just Pawlenty, that’s been responsible for keeping the state gas tax from even rising with inflation. It’s an article of faith with them as even now Senator Gazelka has said that the proposed gas tax increase is a “red line” that Republicans won’t cross. It took the collapse of the I-35W bridge in Minneapolis over the Mississippi River to even get a grudging five-cent increase past the GOP.

      • And yet, about 25% show up to vote at city elections.

    • Brian Simon

      New construction enjoys much higher approval ratings than maintenance. The DNR, for example is on board for paving a bike path along the MN river in Bloomington. The route is currently underwater; as it often is at this time of year. This is surely a sign of significant future maintenance costs. Yet, the legislature has funded it. Meanwhile, miles of existing trail go unmaintained, because there’s no money for it. Go figure.

  • Jay T. Berken

    I am not a Civil Engineer, but I have been working in the public utility business for 16 years. I see that mill and overlay is just a 5 year band aid.and really doesn’t fully take care of the situation of our roads eroding in Minnesota. We need to do a full reconstruction of the roads with replacing the deep utilities and compacting the road bed to the latest specs. By mill and overlay, you may be filling holes in under the surface, but there is still erosion in the frost line that will just turn up within a year(s).

    I drive Fairview from Hwy 5 to Randolph everyday. They did a mill and overlay I believe 6-7 years ago. I almost lost my tires a number of time driving that road after this winter.