When Jim Benning, Duluth’s director of public works, set out to develop a plan to invest $7.5 million in city streets next year, he certainly didn’t have any trouble identifying enough streets in need of work.
Benning said he could have thrown a dart at a map of Duluth “and I would hit a neighborhood where I could spend all $7.5 million within a couple blocks.”
“The hard part is that we want to spread this out equitably as much as we could across the city, and another hard part was: Why did I pick this street in this neighborhood, when the street right next to it is in just as bad shape?” he said.
Mayor Emily Larson said the city had to prioritize its spending but will have 25 years’ worth of funding to chip away at problem streets, thanks to a half-percent sales tax supported by a citywide referendum.
“I am so grateful to this community who two years ago overwhelmingly voted to approve a half-percent sales tax dedicated fully to streets. With 76.5 percent of the vote and passing in every single precinct across the city, our residents spoke out clearly for a long-term sustainable and consistent funding source to fix roads throughout Duluth,” she said.
“If you’ll pardon the pun, it really has been a very long road to get here,” Larson said, noting that while Duluth residents voted in favor of the self-imposed tax in 2017, it took two separate legislative sessions to win state lawmakers’ support.
Duluth won’t begin to collect the dedicated sales tax until next month, but Larson said it is expected to generate $7.5 million annually. She noted that the city also will continue to invest an additional $2.5 million from its general fund to support street improvements, bringing the annual budget to $10 million.
The amount of money that Duluth spends on streets next year is expected to exceed what it has in any previous year. Prior to 2020, the most the city had budgeted for annual street improvements spending was $5 million, and that level of investment lasted only three years — from 2009 to 2011.
Larson said the city expects to complete at least 17 miles of street repairs next year, as compared with the 2.5 miles it will this year.
“We think we’re going to get even a little further than that, she said.
“We’re going to try,” Benning chimed in, explaining that he hopes to tackle 18.6 miles of repairs.
Duluth has put together the attached detailed list of the projects it aims to undertake next year.
Benning said the city also will be putting together a longer list of pending projects that looks out at least five years into the future.
The city also will be announcing neighborhood meetings to discuss next year’s projects, as well as other roads in need of attention.