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Duluth mayor doubles down on street repairs for 2016

A motorist drives past a patched and crumbling section of East Skyline Parkway scheduled to be resurfaced this year. On Tuesday city officials announced a plan to double the miles of city streets crews will mill and cap in 2016. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com1 / 2
A motorist drives by a pothole on East Skyline Parkway near Ninth Avenue on Tuesday. The city will resurface more than six-tenths of a mile of Skyline between Kenwood Avenue and Rice Lake Road this year. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com2 / 2

Duluth Mayor Emily Larson announced Tuesday that she aims to double the number of miles of street the city improves this year.

"Last year, I made a commitment to the residents of Duluth that I would prioritize streets and infrastructure, and today, just about 11 weeks into my term, I'm really proud to make good on that commitment," Larson said at a news conference she called in the city's toolhouse.

Larson said she will ask the Duluth City Council to sign off Monday on her plans to spend $800,000 more on resurfacing streets than had been originally budgeted, boosting the length of road to be repaired. While Duluth initially had planned to improve 5 to 6 miles of road this year, it now should be able to tackle 11 to 12 miles of repairs.

As for the funding source, Larson said: "These are one-time dollars. They are from our anticipated budget surplus of 2015."

Although Larson said the city still is collecting its final financial numbers for last year, she expressed confidence the surplus would be at least large enough to cover the increased expenditure on roads she has proposed in 2016. If the surplus turns out to be significantly larger, Larson said she may seek to direct additional funding to road repairs.

She chalked up the city surplus to a number of causes, including unspent contingency funds, reduced spending on retiree health care benefits, increased sales tax collections and increased license fee receipts.

Larson said she wants to ensure that people "see and know and understand that we are doing, as a city, absolutely everything that we can on a local level to meet this critical need. And it still won't be enough."

Offering a caveat, Larson said: "Despite the fact that we are doubling our street improvements for this year, it does need to be stated very clearly that this is one-time money, not a resource we can rely on every year to backfill ongoing consistent needs we have as a city."

City Council President Zack Filipovich thanked Larson for her efforts to invest in Duluth's streets, but he agreed that more work needs to be done.

Toward that end, he said: "We have our council workshop this Saturday, and we are going to be devoting a significant amount of time in that workshop to talking about this issue and trying to create a dialogue between every new councilor to figure out how we solve this issue for the long term."

Larson suggested that using the proceeds of a higher gas tax might be one option, but that's not something the city could do alone.

"It's not unique that Duluth has challenges paying for streets. This is something that is very true across the state, across the country, because there's been disinvestment in transportation funding," she said.

Larson suggested Duluth's efforts to address needed street improvements could set a good tone for discussion.

"I feel really great about the fact that as a city we can now step forward and say: 'When we get a chance to invest in our streets, we do and we will.' We're demonstrating our capacity to do that, and now we are asking for greater partnership from the state and federal government to do the same," she said.

While street projects still are being prioritized, Kelly Fleissner, the city's maintenance operations manager, said that every effort will be made to stretch the dollars as far as possible and to spread projects equally throughout Duluth.

Larson said that when street improvement plans are finalized, a map will be posted on the city's website to show which roads will be targeted.

Duluth collects about $2.6 million per year from street fees. Of that sum, it spends about $1 million per year to pay off bond debts associated with prior street projects.

That leaves the city with $1.6 million for street maintenance and repairs.

If the proposed allocation is approved by the city council, Duluth's street department will have a $2.4 million budget to work with in 2016.

That's an enhancement but still nowhere near the $6 million dollars per year Duluth used to receive through a casino revenue-sharing agreement with the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa. Those funds ceased to flow after federal officials deemed the agreement invalid. Fleissner said the money had gone to pay for street reconstruction in the past.

"That money is gone, and the reconstruction amount we're doing now is relatively small. So until we replace that funding amount somehow some way, we have to do the best we can with enhanced maintenance, like capping and crack-sealing and those kinds of things," Fleissner said.

Through milling and capping, Fleissner said the city often can extend a street's life by five to 10 years. He expects work to begin in earnest by mid-May, as blacktop plants resume production.

To tackle the job, Fleissner said the city will bring on an additional 10 seasonal workers, bringing the street department's staff count to 40.