Stopping potholes before they start

Yesterday, we wrapped up the 2011 street-paving season, and I’m happy to say that more than 45 miles of Minneapolis streets are now freshly resurfaced or sealcoated.

Downtown Minneapolis in particular has seen a lot of improvement: over 50 blocks of streets, some of which were in tough shape, have been resurfaced, thanks in part to federal dollars. We’ve also added 3.1 new miles of on-street bike lanes downtown.

As we approach winter, this is how we stop potholes before they start: these 45 miles of newly-improved streets will almost certainly not spring any potholes this coming winter, which means that we’ll have more resources to respond faster to those areas that do spring them. Whether you take a car, a bike, a bus, light rail or just walk, this is good news.

We can’t control the weather — we don’t know what kind of a winter we’re going to have or whether the pothole season will be as bad as in the past couple years — but we can control how we respond to the weather. And in Minneapolis, we’ve chosen to respond by fixing our streets before they develop potholes.

Big cities across the country are facing huge challenges in paying off their infrastructure debts. In that regard, Minneapolisis not unique.

I have often said that the story of Minneapolis in recent years is that our streets are safer to walk down because they have potholes in them. By that, I mean that as we have invested heavily in public safety — which has brought violent crime down to record-low levels — we have had to delay much-needed maintenance on our streets.

A pothole or a deteriorating street is like a debt in our infrastructure that we pass on to future generations. In Minneapolis, we have paid down $183 million of debt in dollars and restored the City’s AAA credit rating. Now we need to pay down the debt in our streets.

We’ve taken steps in recent years to meet the need: the five-year Infrastructure Acceleration Program will improve one-third of City-owned arterial streets by 2013. But as important as it is, it that has only helped us keep pace with the need, not get ahead of it.

That’s why starting next year, I’ve proposed a dramatic increase in the City’s street-improvement program: I have asked the City Council to approve a five-year increase of 60% over what was previously planned in the City’s capital budget for street improvements. If approved, that will mean $9 million additional next year to start, with $22 million additional in 2013.

The main reason that I am able to propose this increase is because of the closed-pension merger that was finally approved last month. As a result of paying off our pension bonds and being able to predict our future pension liabilities, we have greater borrowing capacity to expand our street-improvement program sooner and in greater amounts than we had planned.

There is still much to do — even with consistent, heightened investment, it will take many years to bring Minneapolis’ entire road network into the 21st century. And we will continue to face funding challenges, not to mention the need to keep property taxes down. But every year, like this one, that we improve scores of miles of streets is one more year that we pay down our infrastructure debt — and one more year that some potholes will never see the light of day.

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