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Street maintenance: The problem Rochester can no longer afford to ignore

Street maintenance: The problem Rochester can no longer afford to ignore

After decades of continued growth, coupled with inadequate levels of funding, Rochester has fallen significantly behind in its ability to maintain its aging network of city streets. 

Over the past 20 years, the city's backlog of unmet reconstruction needs has grown from $19.6 million to over $234.5 million, a staggering 1,200 percent increase. In that same amount of time, the number of miles of city streets has gone from 275 to 467.

“Those roads that were built 40 years ago are now at the age where something major needs to be done, and the level of funding hasn’t grown at the same percentages as the increase of mileage of streets," said Richard Freese, the city's director of public works. 

With half of city streets now 30 years or older, Rochester should be investing at least $32 million per year into road maintenance strategies. Instead, it now spends about $9 million annually. The result is a growing deficit that local officials agree needs to be addressed sooner than later.

“Infrastructure is not sexy and nobody likes talking about it — because the problems are 20 years in the making and they’re so easy to push off from one year to the next," said Council Member Michael Wojcik. "But if we keep ignoring this problem the way we have the past 35 years, it will bury everything else we do.” 

The figures on street maintenance were included as part of Rochester's comprehensive plan update. The findings of the plan, which aims to guide Rochester's growth for decades to come, were presented to the city council on Monday afternoon.

"We've done the best we can to address critically-failing pieces, but if you run like that for too long, you run out of things to plug holes with," Council Member Nick Campion said in an interview prior to Monday's meeting. "There's no silver bullet and our tools are fairly limited ... but it's a problem we need to tackle."

Freese told us he has made numerous presentations on the issue over the course of his 23-year tenure with the city. He said that even while the department has been able to keep the "rideability of the streets fairly good," the issue of funding continues to worsen. He cited Rochester's continued expansion, as well as increased construction and labor costs, as factors for the rising deficit.

“I know you can’t come up with $20 million right off the bat," Freese recalled telling the council at a meeting last fall. "But you need to come up with a strategy on how you are going to build the amount of money that is available annually for road maintenance.”

According to local officials we spoke with, some steps that could be taken to address the funding gap include:

  • Implement utility-style funding programs for streets.
  • Work with the Minnesota Legislature to gain greater flexibility on how cities allocate state aid.
  • Push development toward areas where the city has already made an investment in infrastructure.

Freese also noted the need to increase the quality and durability of new streets being constructed, particularly in Rochester's sprawling subdivisions. Per city policy, the developer is responsible for building the infrastructure before turning it over to the city for ownership. The process allows developers to go cheap — leaving the city on the hook to repair and maintain the failing infrastructure. 

“We found that over the years, the quality hasn’t always been as good as it could have been," said Freese.

In response to these concerns, the city has implemented a pilot program that aims to improve the design and construction of roads in new developments. The hope is that an increased focus on quality will eventually reduce the financial strain put on taxpayers.

"It's incumbent that we find more creative ways to address this," Campion said of Rochester's street maintenance shortfall. "That means all ideas put on the table."

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Cover photo: Licensed / Pixabay

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