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Officials ponder ramping up street replacements

Duluth City Councilor Greg Gilbert seemed startled during a public hearing Monday when he heard the city would replace only 1.5 miles of street in 2009.

Duluth City Councilor Greg Gilbert seemed startled during a public hearing Monday when he heard the city would replace only 1.5 miles of street in 2009.

"This is not work on the entire city, is it?" Gilbert asked Patrick Mlakar, a Duluth senior engineering specialist who attended to explain the street improvement program.

Yes, Mlakar confirmed: The program was given only enough money to replace 1.5 miles of street in 2009, a new low since it was launched in 1994.

Until 2005, the city replaced an average of nearly five miles of streets annually, according to city statistics.

In 2005, the city spent only enough to replace 3.5 miles, and that figure has fallen ever since, to the proposed 2009 figure of 1.5 miles.

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Since the street improvement project's 1994 inception, 63 miles of 358 city streets have been replaced at a cost of $82 million, Mlakar said.

"I think this trend has to do with the economy in general," Mlakar said of the meager amount slated for 2009. The program runs on the interest collected from the city's portion of Fond-du-Luth Casino revenue.

But Mayor Don Ness, who talked about changing the program while campaigning for office last year, hinted Monday night that he might propose some changes to the 2009 program.

At Ness' request, councilors delayed a vote on the 2009 streets in Lakeside and Morley Heights set to be upgraded.

Though Ness could not be reached for comment Tuesday, what he said while campaigning could give a clue to what he's planning.

"I have a plan to at least double our commitment to the street improvement program by 2011," Ness said during an interview with the Duluth News Tribune.

More money should be available in 2009 because the city will be done paying off some bonds the street program took out in 1994. And Ness said he'd like to invest more casino revenue into the state Board of Investments, which he said could provide a better rate of return.

He also said he'd like to pump more money into doing street overlays, which prolongs the lives of city streets.

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"That's important, not only for aesthetic purposes, not only for the smooth ride that you get out of it, but it doubles the life of the road when you commit to an overlay program on those city streets," Ness said last fall.

Current and former councilors have loudly complained that the community investment fund ought to pay for more street improvements.

To replace every street within the average life expectancy of 30 years,

11 miles of streets would have to be done annually, Councilor Jim Stauber said.

In addition, Stauber floated the idea that residents of improved streets pay more of the total cost than the 25 percent they pay now.

"I think we have to start assessing people more," Stauber said, arguing that some cities even charge residents for the entire cost.

At 25 percent, the current proposal is for a homeowner to pay $46 per foot of frontage. So the owner of a 50-foot-wide lot would pay $2,300.

Some of the projects are getting more expensive because of the city's failing water mains and sewers.

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Because so many water and sewer mains are so old, the city will consider not just what the street looks like, but what's happening beneath before picking streets to replace, said Jim Benning, director of Duluth's Public Works & Utilities Department.

"The condition of the underground utilities will be as big a factor in determining what streets we do," Benning said. "If we got two bad streets, we're going to pick the one that has ... bad water mains beneath it," he said.

PATRICK GARMOE can be reached at (218) 723-5229 or

pgarmoe@duluthnews.com .

He blogs at www.areavoices.com/buzz/ .

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