MnDOT chief says winter put holes in budget, roads

Harsh winters take a toll on roads.
Plows, graders and the harshness of northern Minnesota winters take their toll on roads as evidenced by the numerous chunks of asphalt dislodged along Idlewild Street Tuesday, April 22, 2014 in Duluth, Minn.
Derek Montgomery / For MPR News

Minnesota spent more to remove ice and snow from state roads this winter than in any previous winter.

Charlie Zelle, commissioner of transportation, said on The Daily Circuit Tuesday that the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) spent $121 million to remove snow and ice from state roads this winter.

MnDOT figures show that the previous costliest winter was last year, with an expenditure of roughly $112 million. Before that, the record was $81.1 million, set in 2010-11. These figures, obtained from a MnDOT website, have not been adjusted for inflation.

• Related: School of hard knocks: Road crews fight pothole wars shorthanded on money, science

Zelle described the season now drawing to a close as "really a rough winter, as we all know."

"I think of that one storm in February, when it was sleeting and then it turned to ice," Zelle told Tom Weber. "And rather than let it sit there for a week, we threw material, plows, we threw everything at it. And I think MnDOT did an extraordinary job. But that one storm cost $19 million for our agency."

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"We are over budget," Zelle said, but he added that MnDOT has reserves to cover the extra spending and patch some of this year's unusual crop of potholes.

"There's potholes on state and federal roads, there's potholes in the county and the cities, there's potholes everywhere," he said. "It is a tough year. No question. And I tell you, I can't walk down a skyway or a street without meeting friends who want me to find some asphalt for them. But I think it's important to note that potholes are a symptom, not ultimately the problem. The potholes come about when the roadway and the structure underneath the road has begun to fall into disrepair."

"As a state," Zelle said, "we have deployed 900 tons of asphalt so far, just on the state system." But he said that "fixing potholes is like patching the roof. ... It's the worst kind of money, because it doesn't last very long. These are Band-Aid approaches."

With three weeks left in the Minnesota session, lawmakers don't appear to be including a major transportation bill that Gov. Mark Dayton had wanted lawmakers to consider.That bill would include some tax increases to boost funding for road, bridges and public transit spending.