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St. Paul seems ready to overhaul trash hauling; survey suggests support

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Scattered trash
Some 14 companies now compete for trash removal business on a house-by-house basis in St. Paul
MPR News file

St. Paul officials Wednesday posted survey results suggesting residents like the idea of organized trash collection. It could pave the way to historic changes in the way the city's trash gets picked up. 

For decades, the city has essentially let the private sector take care of trash hauling. The city licenses them but leaves it to individual homeowners and businesses to decide which firms pick up the garbage, when they do it and what it costs. 

Some 14 companies now compete for trash removal business on a house-by-house basis. This differs from Minneapolis, which has a quasi-public trash collection, and cities like Blaine and White Bear Lake, which have single providers.

St. Paul officials say they've been hearing more about the traffic the city's current system generates — sometimes nearly a dozen garbage trucks going down any one block every week. St. Paul's alleys date back to the start of the city, and public works officials say they're just not built to withstand this kind of truck traffic. 

St. Paul's recently completed survey asked residents what they wanted from trash collection, what they typically pay for the service and whether they're interested in change. 

For the most part, they seemed to be interested. 

More than half the respondents said reducing illegal dumping and truck traffic in their neighborhoods was a high priority and that low, uniform rates were important. Only about a third said picking their own hauler was a high or very high priority.

This wasn't a scientific survey, however. There were only about 2,000 responses, out of a city of 300,000. 

This idea has also received very strong opposition in the past as it has progressed. People have been very supportive of letting this business and the market sort itself out. 

Haulers remain worried about potential changes in St. Paul. The survey showed firms concerned about whether a new system would treat them all fairly, how union labor might play into this process and what role the city would play.

The $330,000 study of organized trash collection will get a public airing at City Hall next week. The City Council will probably ask its public works department to start the process with some direction based on the feedback they get.

But City Council President Russ Stark thinks the path forward is clear.

"We definitely did not hear from people no, don't do this," he said Wednesday. "We heard yes, and here's how we'd like you to do it. Here's what's important to us. And we see problems in the way things operate currently. We're tired of 5, 6, 10 trucks in our alley. We're tired of the noise and the pollution. And also the higher cost."

The city also says some kind of mandate will reduce the incentive to dump trash illegally, either in public bins or just willy nilly, in parks or vacant land or otherwise.

The survey also collected hundreds of trash bills and found a huge variation in price, from $19 a month to almost $60 a month for a big container.

It's not clear how fast the city might act. Officials could say they want this to happen later this year, and then ask the incumbent trash service providers to try to organize themselves first, maybe divide the city into zones, or establish routes that could be bid out. 

The city could also set goals for minority business participation and require services like yard waste disposal or pickup for big items. Haulers may also ask the city to handle billing. 

City officials acknowledge there would be many details to work out. So if it happens, it would probably not be before 2018.

Editor's note (May 31, 2016): This story has been edited to clarify the nature of the study of organized trash collection commissioned by the city of St. Paul.