Cuts could force Minneapolis to slow its assault on potholes

Officials say they need more funds to repair the miles of roads in disrepair.
Workers Bob Lucky, left, and Andre Johnson, right, fill a pothole with hot asphalt on Tuesday in Minneapolis.
May 04, 2011

After reflecting on the state of Minneapolis’ streets, Carol Greenwood simply laughed.
“Mediocre at best,” she said pointedly.
After living in Minneapolis for 52 years, Greenwood said she has watched the number of potholes increase and the quality of roads deteriorate.
“There’s a lot of spots where there are foot-wide potholes with 6 inches below, at least,” Greenwood said. “[It] can give quite the jolt on your transmission.”
Roughly 35 percent of Minneapolis’ city-owned streets have been rated as below satisfactory and are in need of aggressive treatments, according to a Minnesota Daily analysis of a city streets database.
Acknowledging that the roads aren’t at a level that they should be, Minneapolis Director of Transportation and Maintenance Mike Kennedy said budget cuts have made it difficult to keep up with needed repairs.
“The cuts get so deep that not only are we not doing repairs effectively, but we have fewer crews,” Kennedy said.
The city’s budget comfortably supported 11 repair crews a decade ago but now supports seven, with extra crews serving only as needed. As a result, crews are slower on large arterial streets.
To make up for the lack of funding, the city has increasingly relied on short-term maintenance procedures. In the last 10 years, 77 percent of all maintenance was done with seal coating, the cheapest major treatment besides filling potholes. A seal coat extends road life by only five years compared to reconstruction efforts, which extend a road’s life by 20 years.
“Unfortunately the first thing that goes with budget cuts is preventative maintenance,” Kennedy said. “It makes no sense.”
The city prioritizes street repair based on the amount of traffic, available funds and its pavement ratings. Needy but less-traveled roads won’t make it to the city’s agenda for years.
Potholes on the rise
Last year roughly 10,000 potholes were filled, Kennedy said. But in some neighborhoods, residents feel these repairs are grossly ineffective, such as the five residential blocks near 14th Avenue Southeast and East Hennepin Avenue in the Southeast Como neighborhood, where the city has never paved the streets.
The roads are made of oil-dirt, littered with foot-wide potholes and odd mixes of old patches with various materials.
“I’ve traveled all over the world and these are some of the worst roads,” resident Jeremiah Peterson said. Indicating the way streets were raised in the middle and sunken on the sides, he said, “The sides of the street don’t look like anything you’ve ever seen.”
In the city’s notes on the neighborhood’s potholes, city employees have inserted comments about the oil-dirt roads.
“We’ve patched this area two to three times since the first of the year,” one said. “Any repairs are temporary at best.”
“We are doing what we can with what we have,” another comment said. “With [the] budget getting cut, I am very ashamed of our streets.”
Steve’s Auto Repair Assistant Manager Jared Ruhl said he sees about one to two cars everyday with damage from potholes.
“I’ve never seen potholes this bad –– this big, this amount,” he said. “Every single road you go onto, you’re going to hit one to two potholes.”
Ruhl said he just spent $600 fixing his own car and needs to spend another $1,000 to repair his shocks.
Though some repairs are as cheap as $30, Ruhl said repairs of $1,000 are not uncommon.
This year the city has invested an additional $1 million in pothole repairs, which will help prevent rapid deterioration. The extra money will allow for twice as many repair crews to start work in the beginning of the summer.
Investing despite cuts
Roughly 62 percent of the city’s streets are at the end of their useful life, as most of the city’s streets were built in the 1960s and ’70s.
As these streets get older, the demand and extent of needed repairs only increases. Some older streets have aged so much that they need to be completely rebuilt.
The Accelerated Infrastructure Program, passed in 2008, has invested an additional $5 million per year until 2013 to help bridge that gap.
This year, 13 miles of city streets will be reconstructed in nine neighborhoods, which include Seward and Cedar-Riverside.
Of the roads already resurfaced, none had a pothole in it this year, Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak said.
“When we spend the money to fix it, it gets fixed,” he said. “But we don’t have nearly [enough] money to do that for all the streets.”
Rybak said the city has underinvested in the roads for decades and now has “a lot of catching up to do.”
Being in the middle of a recession and facing “massive” cuts from the state government has made it difficult to invest in infrastructure, Rybak said, though it is his second highest priority next to public safety.
“We have a big problem,” he said. “We’ve taken expensive steps and we’re going to continue to do that unless we get massive cuts from the state.”
Rybak said it’s possible the state Legislature will cut more aid this year, which could prevent infrastructure renewal.
“We have a very large system that was built many years ago,” University of Minnesota civil engineering professor Mihai Marasteanu said. “Right now we are [at] the point in time where we need to invest to keep it at a reasonable level.”
Marasteanu said he believed the city was doing the best it could given budget constraints, but repairs will only get more expensive in the future if there isn’t enough maintenance now.
“This is a big issue,” Marasteanu said. “There’s a huge gap between what is needed and what is actually spent.”
-Deepta Holalkere is a University of Minnesota journalism student.

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