Potholes get bigger as budgets get tighter

City Manager Mark Sather
White Bear Lake City Manager Mark Sather points to a satellite map of the city. Sather is worried about how coming state budget cuts will impact services, including street and highway maintenance and construction.
MPR Photo/Jess Mador

Kenneth Gese knows firsthand how budget constraints can affect quality of life. He's been lobbying White Bear Lake and Ramsey County to finish reconstructing a street in his neighborhood for 25 years. He's still waiting.

"It's next year, next year, two years, five years," Gese said. "I've gone through all of it with both of them many times over the years."

Gese wants them to finish Bald Eagle Ave., which sits a few blocks off Highway 61, White Bear Lake's main drag.

Waiting for street repair -- and waiting
Kenneth Gese has lived in White Bear Lake for 30 years. He's been waiting for 25 of those years for the rest of Bald Eagle Ave. to be reconstructed. Much of the street is in poor condition and lacks sidewalks, drainage and curbs.
MPR Photo/Jess Mador

Bald Eagle Ave. is a small street that cuts through a quiet residential area. Only it's not so quiet anymore.

The street has become a popular alternative for local commuters looking to avoid the traffic on Highway 61. That means lots of cars on an old road badly in need of repair.

Part of the avenue has already been ripped up and redone with new sidewalks, curbs and sewers, but much of what's left is still waiting. The contrast between the finished sections and the rest jumps out immediately.

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"With the snowbanks, you can't see that there are nice curbs and everything. But you go this way and there is absolutely no curbing," Gese said. "You can just pull off onto the dirt and the grass and whatever it is. And besides not having a nice pavement to drive on, there are no storm sewers. So when it rains ... that is where the water collects, and it floods across all the way over to the 10th St. entrance there."

Partially finished
Reconstruction of this section of Bald Eagle Ave. in White Bear Lake was completed a few years ago. Just across this intersection, the street is cracked and potholed. Much of it lacks sidewalks, even though it passes near three schools.
MPR Photo/Jess Mador

The city and county are aware of the street's condition. But Gese has no illusions that, in this tough economic climate, the road will be finished any time soon.

White Bear Lake City Manager Mark Sather has his own list of projects he'd like to see done. From his car, Sather points to one along Highway 61.

"If this snow wasn't here, what you would see is busted up asphalt. You'd see chunks of concrete. And you'd see pieces of this concrete curb that have been busted out -- in some cases patched with some asphalt, and in some cases just totally decayed and gone," Sather said.

Sather gets plenty of calls about rough roads and traffic congestion, but says there just isn't enough money available to address them now. MnDOT has scheduled Highway 61 for work starting in 2013.

Last year, to help pay for work on city streets, White Bear Lake got more than $621,000 in aid from the state's gas tax fund. The city is slated to get almost $660,000 this year.

To save money, White Bear Lake has already put off routine road maintenance like seal coating and patching for the last two years.

Gas tax funds are safe because they are earmarked for certain kinds of road construction, and they can't be diverted to pay for anything else.

The city is also expected to get more than $2 million in Local Government Aid from the state this year, but Gov. Pawlenty has already said that his budget will slash Local Government Aid.

Like other cities, White Bear Lake is looking at a shortfall before it sees a penny in new funds. The city lost about $225,000 when the governor announced cuts in December.

That money was already spent, and city officials are scrambling to deal with that budget gap while they wait to hear about the upcoming cuts.

To save money, White Bear Lake has already put off routine road maintenance like seal coating and patching for the last two years.

The Minnesota League of Cities' Anne Finn says all cities that get Local Government Aid will be forced to make similar choices this year, between maintenance for infrastructure and keeping essential services going.

Map of street conditions
There are about 26 miles of city streets awaiting reconstruction in White Bear Lake. Engineer Mark Burch says the city cancelled some street maintenance for the last two years in a row to save money. Another round of budget cuts could mean more delays.
MPR Photo/Jess Mador

"'(They say) we will save $90,000 and not do the seal coating this year.' But that is huge, because that means if those hairline cracks form on a street and water seeps into there, the next thing you know you have a pothole. That is a lot more expensive to repair, and ultimately it compromises the infrastructure, the integrity of it," Finn said.

The League estimates that delaying routine road maintenance ends up costing taxpayers six times more in the long run.

While city manager Mark Sather says White Bear Lake doesn't use Local Government Aid directly for most road work, state budget cuts mean less money to go around. So, as more money is diverted to police, fire and other essential services, there is less money available to pay for transportation.

Sather says he'd like to see MnDOT do more to help cities, but the department has its own budget concerns. As the economy continues to decline, the gas tax is bringing in less revenue than was originally hoped.

Abby McKenzie, who directs MnDOT's Office of Investment Management, says that while gas tax revenue is not as high as forecast, the department is largely shielded from impending state budget cuts.

"This is a time when a lot of cars aren't being purchased, and we get sales tax on cars. And people are being more frugal about their travel and gas expenditures," McKenzie said. "So we are definitely trying to be cautious and frugal with our own revenues."

The state's massive deficit will only have a minimal effect on MnDOT, because much of its funding is constitutionally dedicated to roads and bridges.

McKenzie says the department is on track to fulfill its 2009 and 2010 plans, which focus largely on bridge and road preservation, and safety and improvments to traffic speed and flow.

White Bear Lake City Manager Mark Sather says he knows MnDOT is doing its best, but it doesn't lessen his frustration over unmet transportation needs in his town.

The League of Minnesota Cities reports similar frustration among local officials across the state. They say that as MnDOT is forced to do more with less, the cost of non-essential work is increasingly falling to them.