St. Louis County unveils $119 million highway plan
The bad news is that everyone who spends money in St. Louis County will be paying a little more sales tax starting Wednesday. The good news is your favorite county road should be in better shape soon, because that new tax money will go toward rep...
The bad news is that everyone who spends money in St. Louis County will be paying a little more sales tax starting Wednesday.
The good news is your favorite county road should be in better shape soon, because that new tax money will go toward repairing roads, bridges and culverts.
St. Louis County commissioners in December approved a half-cent sales tax on almost all retail sales starting April 1. All of the more than $10 million projected to be raised by the new tax each year must, by state law, go to road and bridge repair.
County officials today will unveil their two-year, $119 million plan to upgrade the county’s 3,000 miles of roadway - half paved and half gravel - 600 bridges and thousands of culverts.
The next two summers will see work from Arlington Avenue in Duluth to County Road 24 into Crane Lake. The sales tax money adds to state and federal highway money the county receives as well as the general property tax revenue the county will continue to use for roads.
While the new sales tax had a few critics, no one argues the work doesn’t need to be done. Nearly one-third of the county’s paved road miles carry the lowest rating used by highway inspectors, very poor, and those roads will get the quickest attention.
“We’re doing the worst first,” said Jim Foldesi, St. Louis County public works director.
“More than 500 miles of our 1,500 miles of paved county roads are in very poor condition. This is our best shot at getting that number down.”
Most projects ever The two-year agenda is the most money the county has ever spent on roadwork, topping even the flood-rebuilding years of 2012 and 2013 when federal disaster relief money poured in after the heavy rains that knocked out roads and bridges. The flood-ravaged highways, culverts and bridges have been fixed. But there still are hundreds of miles that need attention from simple wear-and-tear and a dearth of maintenance money in past decades.
Of the county’s 600 bridges, for example, 20 percent are considered officially “deficient,” Foldesi said. So $7 million will go to replace 15 bridges. In 2016, a whopping 32 bridges will be replaced, with more than $30 million set aside for the work.
The county’s increased spending is good news for construction companies and workers. But because bridge work is so specialized, the county may not be able to get qualified bids for all of its proposed projects.
“There’s a chance that we have so much bridge work to do, we may not be able to get enough contractors to get it all done. They may go into 2017,” Foldesi said.
Bonding for faster start The new sales tax money will keep coming year after year. But the county this year is trying to jump-start the extra highway work by selling bonds for about $40 million in advance of the sales tax revenue flowing in. Over the next few years about $3.5 million of the tax annually will go to repay the bonds that allow the county to do more work sooner, when interest rates, fuel and asphalt costs are very low. The 3 percent annual inflationary increase in construction project costs is higher than the county’s interest rate on the bonds, Foldesi noted.
“It’s actually kind of exciting that we can get out ahead of this and do the bonding so we can do these projects earlier and cheaper. It’s a great opportunity with the sales tax revenue that we haven’t had before,” said Commissioner Frank Jewell, who represents eastern Duluth.
Jewell had battled to get specific funding earmarked for Duluth-area roads from the new tax, a move that failed. But he’s now satisfied the projects will be allocated fairly.
“I’ve always said this (sales tax) is a more fair way to pay for roads than property tax,” Jewell said. “I’m satisfied that the discussions we’ve had, Duluth and Hermantown are going to be treated fairly. We’re going to get the work done that needs to be done no matter where it is.”
In 2015 alone the county is ready to spend nearly $30 million going to improve 92 miles of blacktop on 26 different projects across the county; $2.5 million to completely rebuild a total of about one mile of roadway, split among three projects; nearly $2 million to replace hundreds of culverts across 17 projects; $1 million to shore up gravel roads; and $3.4 million for safety projects such as rumble strips and new railroad crossing signs.
Rural intersections get lights
While federal money pays most of the cost of accident reduction efforts, the county also is diving into more safety projects than ever before with the sales tax helping pay the local match required by the federal government.
That includes new streetlights at 57 rural intersections that currently have no lighting - places where accident reports show nighttime crashes could be prevented. The county also is adding yellow and black warning arrow signs on 117 sharp curves on county roads.
Studies show adding lights to intersections can cut accidents up to 50 percent. The same with curve signs.
“These will save lives, and our portion of the cost is very low,” Foldesi said.
Foldesi also noted that the county is putting millions more dollars into “preventative maintenance,” namely chip sealing blacktop that is still in good shape. It’s a little like seal-coating a driveway, only with heavier-duty goop mixed with stone chips. In many cases the county now is adding chip-sealing as part of new paving projects.
“Studies show it can add 10 or 15 years of life, and it the sooner you do it the better,” Foldesi said. “So if people see us out there right after a project is done, or the next summer, it’s not because there’s a problem. It’s because we are trying to get as much life out of that surface as possible.”