Cars: a major city cost, and sometimes, a major revenue source

The city of Minneapolis has 1,069 miles of streets, 373 miles of alleys, 804 signalized intersections and 100,000 signs -- and it is safe to say that most people take them for granted during their daily commutes and shopping-for-grocery errands.

How much does the city spend to keep cars moving safely and efficiently through the city?

It depends on how you count it. Obvious costs include road, bridge and traffic light maintenance. Other costs include snow plowing, street sweeping, streetlights, the impound lot, city-owned parking ramps, and traffic and parking enforcement.

It's not all a money drain. Some city services generate money, such as tolls from the city's parking ramps and traffic tickets.

Roads by the numbers

The city of Minneapolis spent $22.6 million in 2004 to repair and clean city streets, according to Public Works. That translates to $21,128 per mile.

(That does not count the maintenance costs of the interstate system or Hennepin County-owned byways, such as Lyndale Avenue South, West 50th Street or

Lake Street.)

The cost breakdown is:

– Street repair and maintenance, $6,443 per mile;

– Snow and ice control (streets), $6,113 per mile;

– Street cleaning, $5,295 per mile; and

– Administration/other, $3,277 per mile.

Add in the costs for traffic lights and streetlights, and the city's annual transportation spending rises to $28.1 million, a Public Works budget report said.

Split equally among the city's 380,000 residents, that's $74 each.

For the really big projects, the city borrows money. In 2005, for instance, Public Works proposes issuing $65.7 million in bonds for street reconstruction and bridge rehabilitation, as well as non-street projects such as new bike trails.

Challenges: Money spent on the city streets is less noticeable than money spent on police or fire. Transportation does not have a vocal constituency, and staff cuts are not apparent as if an officer or firefighter fails to respond to a crisis.

Public Works budgets are not keeping up with routine maintenance, said Director Klara Fabry. The mayor's recommended five-year financial plan gives Public Works a .9 percent annual increase from property taxes. By 2010, the department would have 22 percent less buying power after inflation, or a shortfall of $8.5 million, city figures say. It will create safety problems and, in the long run, more costly repairs.

In an ideal world, the city would restripe streets and crosswalks twice a year. Under current funding, the restriping cycle will take 18 months to two years, according to Public Works budget documents. Street light repairs will take one to two weeks instead of the desired three days. Routine pothole repair will take 20 weeks instead of the desired 12 weeks.

In terms of dollars, Public Works' 2005 budget proposal would cut $173,000, or 15 percent, from street maintenance in "routine patch and repair." Money for routine traffic signal repairs would drop $201,527 or 23 percent.

As of October, Public Works reported 165 "signal wrecks" for the year, ranging from a slight knick to severe damage to the posts. That's about one every

other day.

Public Works reported 110 hit-and-run signal wrecks, with $240,000 damage, and 55 wrecks where it could bill for the $205,000 in damages.

In 2005, traffic signal repairs will take six weeks as opposed to the desired one to two weeks, budget documents said.

Some maintenance items are zeroed out. The city spent no money on street and bridge preventive maintenance, such as seal coating, in 2004 and won't in 2005. Fabry said under the current system, roads would wear out more quickly and need major reconstruction sooner.

"The deferred maintenance will get worse and worse and will reach a level where it will become a safety [problem,]" Fabry said. "This is not sustainable. We will have a huge negative impact on the quality of life for the city."

Parking pinch

The city's transportation system not only needs to move cars from Point A to Point B, but it needs to create parking spots.

The city owns 22 ramps and eight surface lots with more than 25,000 parking stalls, according to a joint Finance/Public Works analysis.

In addition, the city has 6,200 on-street parking meters -- and employs 33 parking agents to check them. (It has up to 28 agents writing tickets and five agents emptying quarters from the meters.)

It cost $31.3 million in 2003 to run the city's ramps, meters and impound lot, the city analysis said. The city also paid $25.6 million for parking ramp construction debt that year.

Yet the income more than offsets the costs, and the city has used surpluses to bolster basic city services, including police and fire. In 2003, the city parking fund paid the General Fund $10.8 million.

It turned out the city's transfer from the parking fund to the General Fund was too generous, a city analysis said. The parking fund did not have $10.8 million to give away. The city has built ramps ahead of demand, and the slumping economy has hurt parking revenues.

The city will shrink the parking fund's General Fund gift, dropping from $10.8 million in 2003 to $5 million by 2009, and make other cost-saving moves.

Challenges: Long-term, planners are bullish; they expect economic growth to fill the downtown ramps and then some. City Planner Michael Orange said he expected "skyrocketing parking demand" in the next 16 years -- if people continue to drive alone to work downtown.

(The city publicly and legislatively is pushing for more mass-transit.)

According to economic forecasts, downtown would add 750,000 square feet of office space a year through 2020, or the equivalent of 11 new IDS towers, Orange wrote in a preliminary analysis. Such growth would represent a 38 percent increase above 2000's office space.

"Without a shift from solo drivers to transit, downtown office growth alone will create a need for about 21,000 new parking stalls," he wrote in his 2003 draft, not officially approved. "This is equivalent to five more Haaf Ramps in 2005 that would occupy two-and-a-half full city blocks and seven-and-a-half Haaf Ramps on four blocks every five years from 2010 to 2020," he wrote.

(The Haaf Ramp, 424 4th St. S., has 791 parking stalls on six above-ground floors. Orange estimated building the equivalent of 27 new Haaf Ramps would cost $360 million, at today's price of $17,000 per stall.)

The city also copes with parking pressure through the zoning code restrictions, which create parking requirements for new businesses. At residents' requests, the city also has created 24 critical parking areas that give residents preferential status for long-term on-street parking.

Traffic crackdown

To work safely, the city's transportation system also needs officers to catch speeders, red-light runners and other traffic scofflaws.

Southwest Councilmembers say they routinely get requests for speed bumps, more stop signs and other traffic-calming measures -- and more traffic enforcement to make neighborhood streets safer.

The city has 22 officers in the traffic enforcement unit. At an average of $75,000 per officer, that is $1.7 million a year specifically focused on traffic law violators, but that is a minimal estimate. Precinct officers and the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board Police also do traffic enforcement as part of their job.

Challenges: The Police staff continues to dwindle. The city had 895 sworn officers in 2001. By 2004, the number dropped to 796.

The city's five-year plan called for cutting 43 more officers in 2005 as part of the ongoing city belt-tightening, as the city tries to dig out from under old debts and state aid losses.

Mayor R.T. Rybak's 2005 budget proposes eliminating nine positions, or 1 percent of sworn officers.