Local Officials, Public Works Directors, and Engineers Call for City Street Solutions This Session

City officials gathered at the Capitol March 21 for a press conference to call for dedicated city street funding and flexible policy solutions to be passed this session.
(Published Mar 25, 2019)

“We are all in this ‘pothole’ together.” That’s the message of city officials from across the state who gathered at the Capitol March 21 for a press conference to call for dedicated city street funding and flexible policy solutions to be passed this session.

These requests are needed to help cities maintain, construct, and reconstruct city roadways that are an important, but often overlooked, part of the state’s transportation systems.

Speakers from the cities of Ely, Oak Park Heights, Minnetonka and Rochester as well as the City Engineers Association of Minnesota (CEAM) were joined by city officials from Eagan, Forest Lake, Hopkins, Lauderdale, Northfield, Princeton, Prior Lake, Tower and White Bear Lake. Many city officials brought in chunks of broken road to show that whether your city is big or small, in the metro or in Greater Minnesota, potholes and the headaches they create all look very much the same.

Ely City Councilmember and LMC Board President Heidi Omerza recounted how her teenage son recently had to be driven to Duluth in the middle of the night for an emergency appendectomy, and how potholes along the way forced them to stop several times to help manage the pain. “Joking about potholes is really a fun thing to do … but looking back, it was not a funny situation.”

City streets are part of the broader transportation system

“We view our local streets as part of a transportation system that benefits the region and the state,” said Minnetonka Mayor Brad Wiersum. While Wiersum’s community has accepted an increase in the property tax levy to prioritize roads, it’s not enough. “Regional and state funding support stands to reason,” said Wiersum.

However, approximately 84 percent of city streets are ineligible for any form of existing state or federal funding. Over 700 of Minnesota’s 853 cities do not qualify for Municipal State Aid (MSA), and only 20 percent of roadways within those qualifying cities are eligible for MSA funds. The Small Cities Assistance Account, established in 2015 to assist cities that do not qualify for MSA, was a step in the right direction but has not been funded adequately or consistently.

“The cost of these improvements has grown exponentially over the years,” said Chris Petree, Rochester public works director. “The cost of replacing this infrastructure and the burden on the community has grown too great to keep up with these needs.”

Petree called for the Legislature to pass flexible policy options such as authorization for cities to establish street improvement districts. Street improvement districts would give cities an alternative to property taxes and special assessments and allow for more street funding decisions to be addressed at the local level with local sources of revenue.

“Having the funding to do that maintenance at the right time is critical to providing these assets in the most cost-effective way we can for our residents and all the taxpayers,” said Justin Femrite, vice president of CEAM. Without maintenance, the average life expectancy of local streets is only 25 to 30 years. Maintenance projects like seal coating and overlays can prolong a street’s lifecycle to 50 to 60 years. Femrite also said that certainty of future funding would ensure better construction bids and more efficiencies.

Currently no city in Minnesota has the financial ability to maintain roadway capital improvements over a 50-year life cycle without additional tools from the state.

Oak Park Heights Mayor Mary McComber, president of the Minnesota Association of Small Cities, said that her small city grows to a population of over 30,000 on any given day due to local employers. Oak Park Heights is also the location of the recently completed St. Croix River Crossing. McComber said that while cities have been good partners in transportation projects at the regional and state level that cost sharing on these projects is burdensome for many communities and diverts funding away from city streets.

Solutions proposed

Adequate and reliable funding from the state can help reverse these trends. The League of Minnesota Cities is ready to work with city officials, legislators, and the governor’s office to pass funding and policy solutions this session, said Anne Finn, LMC’s intergovernmental relations assistant director. Specifically, Finn said the League is pursuing the following three solutions:

  1. HF 1288/SF 1269: Funding for the existing Small Cities Assistance Account and a new Larger Cities Assistance Account through a $10 surcharge on license tab fees and motor vehicle title transfers, which would raise approximately $57 million annually.
  2. HF 1095/SF 1271: Authority for cities to establish street improvement districts to fund street maintenance, construction, and reconstruction.
  3. HF 846/SF 1228: Creation of a Local Cost-Share Assistance Account within the Local Road Improvement Program to provide grants to local governments to help with the local share of some trunk highway projects.

“We are no stranger to partnering with the state to get the job done,” said McComber, “And funding for city streets is no different.”

—View the city street funding fact sheet

Read the current issue of the Cities Bulletin