Duluth unveils new sales-tax-funded street projects

Duluth maintenance workers fill a pothole.
City of Duluth street maintenance workers Kirk Anderson (left) and Dan Russell (right) fill a pothole with cold mix in April 2014 along Brainerd Avenue in Duluth.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News 2014 file

Potholes are a universal complaint in cities across Minnesota.

But both the potholes and the complaints tend to be outsized in Duluth, where the harsh winters and steep hills wreak havoc on roads.

Two years ago, Duluth Mayor Emily Larson kicked off a news conference with this frank acknowledgement: "Duluth streets are in terrible shape."

Her proposed solution? A half-percent sales tax for up to 25 years to help fix Duluth’s sprawling 450-mile network of dilapidated roads.

The city put the idea to voters. And Duluth residents responded overwhelmingly, voting more than 3 to 1 in favor of the sales tax hike.

But the state Legislature had to sign off on the plan. It took nearly two years, and a lot of trips to St. Paul to lobby for it, before lawmakers approved.

"So, if you'll pardon the pun it really has been a very long road to get here,” said Larson at a follow-up press conference she held Wednesday to unveil the first slate of projects the city intends to tackle with the initial proceeds from the new tax.

The city will begin collecting the tax next month. It's expected to generate $7.5 million per year.

The hard part, said public works director Jim Benning, was figuring out which streets to fix first. He said he could throw a dart at a map and “hit a neighborhood where I could spend all $7.5 million within a couple blocks.”

So, he knows he will be asked, "Why did I pick this street in this neighborhood and the street right next to it is in as bad a shape as the one that I chose?"

Ultimately officials selected 52 projects, spread throughout the city, covering at least 17 miles of roadway. That's seven times more than what got fixed last year. The city is also devoting $2.5 million from its general fund to road repair.

In recent years more and more cities statewide have turned to sales taxes to help pay for street repair. But they require both local and state approval before the taxes can be levied.

A large pothole
A large pothole in the middle of the road near West Seventh Street and Merritt Park in April 2014 in Duluth.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News 2014 file

Lawmakers granted that power to Duluth and nine other cities last session, including Blue Earth, International Falls, Sauk Centre and West St. Paul.

But some cities may not have a sizeable enough tax base to justify a sales tax increase, said Anne Finn, who lobbies on transportation issues for the Minnesota League of Cities.

She estimates nearly 84 percent of city street work is funded by property taxes and special assessments.

“Cities aren’t expecting the state to solve the problem,” said Finn. “But we do need the tools at our disposal to chip away at it on our own. This local sales tax is one way to do it. But other authority for cities would be extremely helpful, and some revenue stream from the state would be really useful as well.”

The very first project on Duluth’s new list of sales-tax-funded repairs is a four-block patched-up stretch of Oakley Street in eastern Duluth.

Jill Henson and her family moved there two months ago from Shakopee, southwest of Minneapolis. She heard her street is on the list for repairs while picking up her third-grade daughter Mara at the bus stop. “Yay!” she said. “We don't have to worry about popping our tires so much on our street anymore on our bikes."

Henson said streets in Duluth are much worse than they were in Shakopee. That makes some sense, she said, because of the severity of Duluth’s winters. Still, she noted quite a discrepancy between the condition of Duluth’s streets and the state of its hiking and biking trails.

"It's funny because I'd go out on the trails, and the trails were immaculate,” she said, laughing. “You wouldn't find a leaf on the trail or a downed branch, but our street is kind of in disrepair. [It] kind of shows the different priorities."

Streets have been a priority for Mayor Emily Larson since she took office. She hears about it from constituents far more than any other issue, she said. It's personal, too. The street in front of her house is in rough shape. But it didn’t make next year’s list of repairs, she said with a laugh.

"I am going to doorknock my neighbors and just apologize in advance, that as long as I'm in this office, it's never gonna get done.”

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