Pothole pain

Brutal winter, city budget cuts leave city’s streets in rough shape

In Dan Piontek’s opinion, voters need look no further than themselves when ascribing blame for the deteriorating state of Southwest streets.

“Look, nobody wants to pay taxes, and I’m against waste too,” said Piontek, a 25-year veteran Minneapolis Public Works worker, the emotion rising in his voice. “But if you don’t raise revenue, what’s the other option? To let everything fall apart?”

Of course, it has been a rough winter, and all the snow and cold has taken its toll. It’s equally well known that economic times are tough and resources are stretched thin at all levels of government. And since most of his vitriol invokes the “Republican agenda,” Piontek’s criticism isn’t really targeted toward the residents of liberal-leaning Minneapolis.

Nonetheless, for Piontek, the pockmarked state of Southwest streets reflects a broader deterioration in how committed voters and elected officials are to preserving the high-quality public infrastructure that once set Minneapolis apart from comparable cities.

“These Republicans, they want to cut Local Government Aid to cities. They should go to Detroit, Mich. Is that how they want Minneapolis to be?” he said.

“Minneapolis is one of the finest big cities in the country, but you have to take care of your infrastructure. And every year we (Public Works) have less and less.”

Temporary solutions, 
long-term problems

On a recent afternoon, Piontek and three of his colleagues worked their way down Uptown Avenue South from Fulton into Armatage filling potholes with “hot mix.” The crew shoveled steaming asphalt from a truck into the street’s pockmarks, then tamped the chunky black goo into place with the rear of their shovels before moving on to the next hole.

In past years, the last step in the process would’ve involved using a roller to provide the newly filled hole with a smooth finish, Piontek said. But a stagnating road repair budget combined with more deferred road maintenance means crews have more work to do, forcing them to move hastily in hopes of addressing mammoth potholes before they victimize more tires, shocks and suspension systems.

Short-term help may soon be on its way. On March 28, the City Council’s Ways and Means/Budget Committee recommended the addition of $1 million to the pothole repair budget, with one third of the total coming from a 2010 budget surplus and the rest coming from future street resurfacing funds. The full City Council is expected to approve the recommendation at its April 1 meeting, after this edition of the Southwest Journal went to press.

The money will effectively double the city’s pothole workforce this spring, granting Piontek and his colleagues some extra time to make sure their pothole patches remain in place as long as possible.

But even with the additional help, Public Works workers realize they are fighting a losing battle. Although hot asphalt is sturdier than the “cold patches” used during winter months, it remains a temporary solution to a long-term problem. Water works its way into the space between new asphalt and the previously existing roadway, and when it freezes, cracks form, producing new potholes and perpetuating the cycle.

The only way to break the cycle and reach pothole nirvana, as it were, is to resurface deteriorating streets. But with the city, county and state all experiencing budget squeezes, overhauls of roadways ripe for resurfacing are more often deferred than they used to be.

Mike Kennedy, road maintenance supervisor and a 20-year veteran of the Public Works Department, chuckles when asked if this year’s bumper crop of potholes is the worst he’s encountered.

“I get asked that every year. You know, as long as there are potholes it’s a bad year. But these last few years we are seeing more deferred maintenance, the streets are aging, and we haven’t been able to keep up with it,” he said.

Out of an $8 million street repair budget, Public Works spends about $2 million annually on short-term repairs like pothole patching. Although the street repair budget has declined by million of dollars since the turn of the century, Kennedy said it has held steady the last half-decade or so.

Because the numbers fluctuate so much from year-to-year (due, in part, to the occasional availability of one-time federal funds, delays that sometimes push projects from one year into the next and other factors of this sort), an analysis of recent city budgets doesn’t support Kennedy’s contention that there is less investment in repaving and reconstruction projects than there used to be.

For instance, according to the city’s 2007 budget, $16.4 million was set aside from the general fund for street paving that year. In 2008, that number jumped to $43.7 million, then declined to $30.3 million in 2009. Last year, the street paving budget fell further to $23.7, but council’s 2011 budget indicates $33.9 million is allotted this year.

Numbers aside, if perception, anecdotes (one of this author’s tires blew up following an encounter with an especially treacherous pothole on Franklin Ave. S. in early March) and testimony from Public Works employees aren’t enough to convince you that this year’s pothole crop is especially bad, perhaps the perspective of Jared Scheeler, co-owner of Bobby and Steve’s Auto World in Minneapolis, will.

“This year has been exceptionally bad,” Scheeler said. “Last year was almost as bad, but the last two have been by far the worst.”

Pothole-damaged cars are brought to Bobby and Steve’s with loose or bent front-end parts, causing them to pull in one direction, Scheeler said.

And no vehicles are immune from damage. Scheeler said that some of Bobby and Steve’s towtrucks have popped flats after cratering out in deep potholes.

“Some of the potholes are so bad that when you hit them at a high speed it can actually bend the wheel, causing the tire to go flat,” he said.

Some problems areas 
slated for repaving

For anyone who has driven in the area this winter, it won’t come as a surprise to learn that 1st Avenue South and Nicollet Avenue south of Lake Street are two of the areas that Public Works staff has received “tons of complaints about,” according to Kennedy.

At a recent Lyndale neighborhood meeting, City Council Member Meg Tuthill (10th Ward) encouraged attendees to use the city’s 311 service to report monster potholes. With a smirk on his face, neighborhood executive Mark Hinds raised his hand and told Tuthill that he wanted to report the entirety of Nicollet Avenue south of Kmart right then and there.

Shortly after the city-owned St. Paul Asphalt Plant opened for the season at the beginning of March, Minneapolis Public Works crews were using hot mix loads from the plant to patch some of monster potholes that made driving down Nicollet such a harrowing experience, providing temporary relief.

Thankfully, it appears a more long-term solution is on its way.

According to the city’s website, Nicollet Avenue South between 31st and 40th streets is slated for a complete reconstruction and repaving, with work to begin next year.

Other Southwest problem areas — including most of Ridgewood Avenue, a couple of stretches of Stevens Avenue and Lyndale Avenue South, between Minnehaha Parkway and West 56th Street — are slated for reconstruction this year.

But other problems areas, such as 1st Avenue South between downtown and Lake Street, aren’t currently slated for repaving, meaning that drivers can expect at least a couple more winters of swerving and teeth-gritting if the patches applied by Public Works crews don’t hold, as is often the case.

Pay now or later?

Surveying the potholes on Upton Avenue, some of which are clearly wide and deep enough to cause substantial damage to the cars of unsuspecting drivers, Piontek wondered aloud why people don’t realize that if they aren’t willing to spend tax dollars for road upkeep, they’ll end up and spending hundreds to service their pothole-ravaged cars.

“After all, it’s cheaper to pay a little bit more in taxes than it is to buy new shocks and tires,” he said, before unloading another shovel-full of hot mix into the next pothole.

Indeed, this winter represented a perfect storm of sorts. Tight budgets, deferred maintenance and a brutal winter combined to make conditions particularly rough on Minneapolis roadways. The onset of warmer weather, beginning of hot mix season and council’s $1 million investment will alleviate the problem, but ultimately proactive measures like seal coatings and repavings are needed for long-lasting relief.

Although people think that every year is the worst year ever for potholes, Kennedy acknowledged that lack of funds “affected our ability to do good solid preventative maintenance, and we also have less money available for pothole repair.”

“Those things, combined with a very difficult winter with a lot of moisture, and a lot of deferred maintenance, have resulted in a very bad season,” he said.

Reach Aaron Rupar at [email protected]