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An outsider's view: Superior Street reconstruction project a model for state

Duluth isn’t alone when it comes to the need for street repairs. Unlike many other cities, however, Duluth’s mayor and City Council members have taken an aggressive, proactive approach in their fight to fix, maintain and even improve crumbling streets.

An estimated 15 to 20 miles of city streets are being fixed each year. That’s quite an accomplishment for a community that once considered five miles of road repairs a good year. And this at a time when the city is dealing with the loss of about $6 million it once received through a casino revenue-sharing agreement with the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa.

Duluth is to be commended for its efforts to maintain and improve city streets and infrastructure. One project in particular, the planned reconstruction of Superior Street from Sixth Avenue West to Fourth Avenue East, may very well serve as a model for other cities and counties.

Running through the heart of downtown, Superior Street is one of Duluth’s oldest streets and is a major connector for commerce and tourism. Each day more than 11,000 vehicles travel over the brick pavers that have donned the street for more than 20 years. In 2013, portions of the brick were removed and replaced with asphalt due to deterioration. At that time, city officials said the temporary solution was initiated with the understanding that a long-term design process would be taken, and the public was encouraged to be involved.

Since then, five public hearings were held with well over 100 people attending each meeting. At least one more public meeting I’m aware of is scheduled before a final plan emerges.

The city no doubt has had to consider competing interests each step of the way, including parking needs, pedestrian use and traffic flow. And it’s heartening to know city leaders have listened to the people who have taken the time to participate in the process and offer their feedback on proposed design alternatives.

Current plans call for diagonal parking on the upper side of Superior Street and parallel parking on the lower side. And, to make the streetscape more inviting for people, the city has looked to provide space for outdoor dining, trees, shrubs, flowers, benches and public art. Below the surface, the existing water and sewer lines, first installed in the 1880s and 1890s, will be replaced. Above ground, those bricks probably will be replaced by a brighter decorative concrete design.

With proper maintenance, it should be another 40 years before the city will have to tackle another Superior Street reconstruction project.

The city’s transparency throughout this whole process has been commendable. In addition to encouraging public participation, city leaders have been diligent in their efforts to keep the public fully abreast as the project develops.

Visitors to the project’s website — duluthmn.gov/planning/superior-street — can find project presentations, summaries of each public hearing, survey results and even a compilation of individual responses to questionnaires about the project.

While the overall price tag of the street’s reconstruction, including the utility infrastructure below, could be as much as $20 million, once completed, the project will properly showcase downtown Duluth to residents and visitors.

And those first impressions do matter in a city that boasts about 3.5 million tourists each year with an estimated economic impact of $780 million.

In his 2011 State of the City speech, Mayor Don Ness talked about the importance of investing in the city’s streets and infrastructure and the cost of failing to do so.

“Decades of pinching pennies on infrastructure now forces us to spend massive amounts of tax dollars to do nothing more than provide an emergency patch,” he said. “After decades of neglect, we are now paying the price.”

Unfortunately, Ness was right. Decades of neglect are forcing many Minnesota cities to turn to quick fixes or pavement alternatives that cost less initially but are not as long-lasting and may result in more costs in the long run.

That’s just one more reason to admire the Superior Street reconstruction project. City officials aren’t looking for a quick fix; they’re looking for a long-term, concrete solution to their transportation infrastructure needs.

Well done, Duluth.

 

Fred Corrigan is executive director of the Aggregate & Ready Mix Association of Minnesota, which is based in Eagan (armofmn.com).

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