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From poor to good: five years of progress on county roads

Workers install bridge beams on Highland Street in 2014, one of the recovery projects from the 2012 flood. (Photo: St. Louis County)

Five year ago, we in St. Louis County Public Works could no longer ignore an ugly truth. We were investing approximately $35 million a year in construction and maintenance of our county's roads and bridges. While that is a significant amount of money, it wasn't nearly enough to adequately care for this county's massive infrastructure of 3,000 miles of roads and 600 bridges. The situation was bad and going to get worse.

We did some analysis and determined we had to find a more efficient, cost-effective method of maintaining our roads and bridges. We also needed to find new funding sources. What we were doing simply wasn't good enough.

So in 2012 — keep in mind this was all before the flood hit — we came to the County Board seeking their support for a new way of doing business. We looked at different scenarios using pavement management software. We could fix our worst roads with preservation techniques such as reclaim and overlays, gravel stabilization, mill and overlays, hot-in-place recycling and cold-in-place recycling. Then we could perform preventative maintenance on our good roads with crack sealing, chip sealing, scrub sealing and microsurfacing so they'd last longer. We would save money in the long run because we wouldn't have to reconstruct them as often. Our mantra became "worst first," "keep the good roads good" and "use the right fix at the right time."

The County Board approved the plan and we enthusiastically began moving forward. And then the flood happened.

Needless to say, we did a quick shuffling of priorities. Major routes — Haines Road and Highland Street — had to be rebuilt. Hundreds of culverts were replaced and hundreds of washed out roads were repaired. But we continued this new path of preservation and preventative maintenance.

In 2015, the County Board gave our efforts another boost, approving the Transportation Sales Tax, providing a much-needed infusion of funding to speed up our efforts. The Board followed that up by approving two bond sales totaling $65 million, all of which will be paid off with revenue from the Transportation Sales Tax.

This has added up to multiple record-breaking years of investment in the roads and bridges of St. Louis County. 2016 was the biggest: $84.5 million invested in 204 different projects, including 108 miles of pavement preservation projects, 102 miles of preventative maintenance, 26 bridges and 12 miles of culverts replaced, four miles of complete reconstruction plus numerous safety projects.

In the midst of all that, we responded after multiple significant wind storms, investing nearly $1 million in labor and equipment, assessing and cleaning up storm debris.

Now in 2017, we have another busy year of projects planned countywide, totaling an estimated $63.5 million. In Duluth, we will complete the rebuilding of Fourth Street. Also significant will be the resurfacing of Arrowhead Road from Highway 53 to Arlington Avenue. The project will include a new traffic signal at Menard Drive and other safety improvements.

We also have many community-sized projects that together mean a smoother, safer ride on 94 more miles of county roads. This includes the resurfacing of Becks Road in Midway Township, Schultz Road in the City of Rice Lake and of eight miles — basically every county road — in Proctor.

Most satisfying in all of this is that the predictions made five years ago have turned out to be amazingly accurate. Color-coded maps in my office show roads once ranked as poor condition are now in good condition. Those that still need work are in the Capital Improvement Program, meaning they will be addressed within the next five years.

I am thankful to the Board for its continued courage to support our vision, and to my staff and our contractors and the men and women of the trades for their hard work. I also want to express my thanks to you, the public, for your patience throughout, and for staying alert when traveling in and near our many construction zones.

If things continue the way they're going, our pavements have turned the corner.

Jim Foldesi is the St. Louis County public works director.