The pothole always wins. Mark Maloney knows it.
Standing on a section of Owasso Boulevard in Shoreview, the city's public works director knows the pothole fixes his crews will make are band-aids on years of deferred maintenance. There's not enough money to meet the yawning need, and there's no space age pothole filling technology coming to save the day.
"It's pretty archaic," Maloney says. "It's still just taking hot asphalt material and packing it into a hole and waiting for it to pop out again." The patches pothole crews are making this spring will likely "pop out within a week."
It's a battle fought in every Minnesota city and town during the spring. And the terms of engagement haven't changed much over the decades. Without enough money to rebuild the roads, it's patch and hope and patch again.
Tax money -- including the 48 cents a gallon federal and state taxes on gasoline, registration, license and vehicle sales tax fees -- brought in nearly $1.8 billion for road building and repair last year in Minnesota, according to the Minnesota Department of Transportation.
By the time the bills are paid for new road projects, rebuilds of major interchanges and replacement of bridges, and everything else the money is gone.
State transportation officials estimate Minnesota this year is short $1.5 billion to properly fix and maintain the state's 144,000 mile road network, fifth largest in the country. MnDOT oversees maintenance of 12,000 miles of roadway. The rest is the responsibility of counties and cities.
Shoreview will get about $869,000 in state road money this year. "That gets me about three-quarter miles of roadway reconstruction," Maloney says.
The problem here is tame compared to busier and older roads. Still, Maloney says, this section of Owasso Boulevard was worn out five years ago. It should have had major repairs then. But, he says, the road probably won't be rebuilt for five more years because there isn't enough money. In the meantime, motorists want the potholes filled.
Rebuilding a suburban asphalt roadway can cost more than $1 million a mile.
Given all the competition for tax revenue -- public safety, parks, clean water -- Maloney doesn't blame people who are reluctant to pay more in taxes for road repair. The 52-year-old veteran civil engineer says compared to ribbon cuttings for new stuff, road maintenance isn't glamorous.
"Mills and overlays, and total depth reclamations and crack filling, those things just grab the headlines," he says wryly.
Still, it doesn't hurt to ask for more.
A coalition of city officials wants a law passed this legislative session that would let them charge a wheelage tax, like the one counties can impose if they choose.
That's not gaining a lot of traction among lawmakers so far.
There are other things beyond money that could be done to slow roadway decay.
Minnesota pours ice melting chemicals onto streets and highways as soon as the snow flies. The chemicals turn the snow and ice into water. The water seeps into roadway cracks, freezes and expands the cracks -- helping create more potholes.
Pulling back on the treatments might help preserve the roads.
Drivers anxious for clear roads, however, don't buy it, Maloney acknowledges.
"'I need to use this, I need to get to work, and I'm not going to tolerate delay,'" he hears the public say. "That is a message that comes through loud and clear to us."
And, so, Maloney pounds home his transportation mantra: Filling potholes is not a good value for taxpayers. Spending enough money to properly fix the roads is a better value.
"Every dollar spent on the correct preventative maintenance strategy saves taxpayers seven dollars in the long run," he says.
On Owasso Boulevard, he knows that fixes he's making are truly temporary.
"This is the type of roadway that really sucks our resources," he says. "We're gonna nurse it along with all this high intensity patching and pothole patching only to completely throw the asset away and start from scratch in about five years."
At times it feels like a never-ending story, as this quick video illustrates.