LF City Council needs to come up with long-term infrastructure plan

The Little Falls City Council had an interesting discussion Monday about which streets should be repaved  next. The city staff was looking for advice from the City Council, and talked about the deterioration of streets, specifically Third Street East, and First Avenue Northwest by the Chamber of Commerce.

Public Works Director Jerry Lochner pointed out that the city had budgeted $70,000 for a blacktop inlay of 10 city blocks, but the streets mentioned above need reconstruction, and with that, sanitary sewer and water mains, storm sewers and sidewalks ought to be replaced, too. Total reconstruction of three blocks would be about $500,000.

City staff asked for a five-year plan, which is about as long as an elected body serving four-year terms  could consider. However, when it comes to infrastructure improvements, a considerably longer time frame is needed.

Our advice to the City Council is to set up a 40- or 50-year plan. A rough estimate of the number of city-block streets in the city is about 600 or 700. Properly maintained, the roads, sewer and water lines should last that long. If 600 blocks are to be re-done once every 50 years, that’s 12 blocks per year.

The challenge is in getting the City Council to come up with a workable plan that would last far longer than any of them will be in office. Water mains burst. Roads buckle. Some roads have more traffic than others, and some have more truck traffic, accelerating wear.

Still, a plan that only looks at which street is in the worst shape in the city this year is a plan that will only bounce from crisis to crisis. Actually, that’s not a plan; that’s an invitation for disaster.

The Council is further challenged because the infrastructure has deteriorated sufficiently because of underinvestment that the pressure will grow to do more than 12 blocks per year. The city also faces a major challenge because of its high debt load, even though the debt service costs will start declining in 2016.

In the meantime, the city ought to take a hard look at its long-term infrastructure needs. Figure out how much it would cost to do a total replacement, add in the cost of periodic overlays and repairs, multiply by an inflation factor, divide by the number of years in the plan,  and tell the taxpayers this is what it will cost to have paved streets, running water and properly functioning sewers.

Bond only for projects that exceed the yearly expenditure and can’t wait, and set an assessment policy that won’t drive pensioners from their own homes. That’s a plan.