Sewer Politics

THEIR EARS STILL sore from answering complaints about axle-busting potholes, Minneapolis politicians have spent the past few weeks touring flooded rec rooms and submerged streets. Last week, they took what they proclaimed to be drastic action: In a headline-making special initiative, they committed to put an extra $500,000 into the storm-sewer system, and to "reprioritize" future repairs.

Problem is, that's nothing compared to what the city's own staff says is needed. If Minneapolis really wanted to get serious about its sewers--and its roads, bridges, and water treatment plants--it would have to spend more than $100 million a year for the next 25 years. That's what the Department of Public Works concluded in a report handed to the council just weeks before the July deluge began. If, the report said, the city keeps deferring maintenance and skimping on new investment the way it has, this year's floods could be just "a mild indicator of what may occur in the future."

Perhaps not surprisingly, officials have been pretty well silent about the infrastructure report. But that may soon change. "People are screaming at us at these [public] meetings," notes retiring Ward 1 City Council member Walt Dziedzic, who chairs the Transportation and Public Works Committee. "I think you're going to start to see attention to some of these things like you never have before. This is serious business." For a sense of just how serious it may be, consider these highlights from the report:

  • The city (with help from the state and the feds) now spends only a third of what it needs to fix and rebuild roads. Officials publicly blame the severe winter for this year's pothole epidemic. But, the report notes, "the underlying cause is inadequate maintenance and replacement of the higher-volume streets."

  • Of the city's 334 bridges, more than 10 percent are deficient, and many don't meet safety guidelines. Bridge spending is about a fourth of what it should be.

  • Though the city's storm sewers, which carry rainwater from streets to the Mississippi River and the lakes, are in comparatively good condition, many of its sanitary sewers are in dire need of repair. Right now, the budget isn't enough to even inspect them each year, let alone bring pipes and tunnels--some dating back to the 1870s--up to date.

  • Both of Minneapolis's water treatment plants were built before 1930, and some of the pipes are 120 years old. Yearly spending on the system would need to increase by $33 million to meet the "recommended industry standard."

  • And the list goes on. Deteriorating alleys, a crumbling animal shelter, aging traffic signs--all are the legacy, the report suggests, of two decades' of tightening public purse strings. "The federal government used to just give us all this money, with no ties," reminisces Dziedzic. "They'd give us $5 or $10 million that we could do with as we wanted. But that's not happening anymore. And so [lately] when we needed more cops, when we needed to beef up the fire department, that came at the expense of public works. We used to sweep our streets four times a year. The last few years we've swept them twice. We used to have 110 pieces of snow-removal equipment. Now we're down to 70 or 80."

    The total price tag to get Minneapolis' infrastructure up to speed, according to Public Works, comes to some $73 million a year on top of the current $30 million-plus budget. To pay for that from property taxes, the report estimates, rates would have to go up 36 percent. And that, of course, isn't going to happen at a time when even the liberal DFLers who run Minneapolis pride themselves on holding tax hikes to less than 3 percent a year.

    Which, in the elementary math of politics, leaves only two options: Borrow, or take the money from elsewhere. The former could put the city's stellar bond rating at risk, and the latter sets up a classic sewers-versus-social programs debate. Council member Steve Minn (13th Ward) has been showing up at press conferences lately to remind reporters of his challenges to city spending priorities for the last three budget cycles. Outside City Hall, newly minted mayoral challenger Barbara Carlson says she plans to make infrastructure a campaign theme. "This is not a new issue to me," she notes. "I remember Arne Carlson standing over a pothole in the 1965 aldermanic race. This kind of thing is a very big deal."

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