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Erik Burgess, Published November 12 2012

Could Moorhead's bad road rep become a reality?

MOORHEAD – Streets here seem to be the talk of the town for all the wrong reasons.

“They need considerable attention,” said resident Duane Lund, who says in his 52 years in Moorhead, the streets have never been this bad. As if he’s memorized every pothole, Lund can list with ease which streets he believes are the worst – 9th Street to 19th Street, he says, from Main Avenue until 24th Avenue South.

“There’s so many dips. There’s so many potholes out here that they’ve patched,” he said. “It’s a matter of starting all over again. With all the streets we’ve got, we should’ve started last year.”

But data from both cities shows that Moorhead’s much maligned local roads are actually in better condition than Fargo’s.

According to assessments by the same contractor, 80 percent of the 195 miles of roads in Moorhead remain in good enough shape to be restored by minor maintenance and repair, while only 56 percent of Fargo’s 440 miles meet the same criteria. In West Fargo, where the city does its own road assessments, about 74 percent of its 150 miles are in such a condition.

Moorhead leaders are concerned the reputation could soon become reality, though. The city hasn’t kept up with sealcoating, a crucial and by far the cheapest method of preventative maintenance.

“That’s a cold, hard fact. We’ve run out of money,” Chad Martin, the city’s director of operations, told the City Council in October.

Bad rep is a bad rap

The knock against Moorhead for having beat up streets is pervasive.

When a reconstruction bid on Main Avenue fell through in late June, downtown business owners fumed. Some residents, Lund included, expressed frustrations about city roads in a recent town hall meeting. In an unscientific Forum reader’s poll last month, 91 percent of 736 respondents said the city’s “aging streets” helped make Moorhead look unkempt.

Yet according to data each city updates annually, 87 percent of residential roads in Moorhead – even 17th Street South where Lund calls home – are in such a good condition that the relatively cheap sealcoating process is still on the table for repairing them. That’s 119 out of Moorhead’s 136 total residential miles.

In Fargo, 53 percent of residential streets, or 138 out of 260 total miles, are in the same condition.

Furthermore, 76 percent of Moorhead’s collectors – streets like 4th Street which get more traffic than residential roads but still aren’t arterials – are at the same level, requiring superficial repair and no base reconstruction. In Fargo, 61 percent of collectors are at that level.

In fact, the only category in which Fargo beats Moorhead is its minor arterials. Seventy-nine percent of those roadways in Fargo can be fixed with sealcoating or other minor repair methods, while 55 percent of minor arterials in Moorhead are at the same condition.

Cody Eilertson, division engineer of design and construction for the city of Fargo, said one reason the city’s arterials are in better shape could be funding – Fargo has a sales tax to help pay for road work while Moorhead doesn’t. But upkeep of major roads is also a focus in Fargo.

“It’s been the policy to keep those arterials up,” he said. “They’re just a little bit higher priority because of the traffic volumes and the amount of people that are impacted.”

Councilman Mark Hintermeyer said he wasn’t surprised to hear Moorhead’s local streets compare favorably to Fargo’s

“It seems like we’re always backtracking like Moorhead is somehow, the streets are somehow worse than other communities, and I don’t believe that,” Hintermeyer said.

But what is causing that rocky road reputation?

“That’s that $64,000 question,” Hintermeyer said. “If the street in front of your home or business is at the end of its life cycle, you may garner the opinion that all of them are like that.”

It’s not a universally held opinion. Bruce Bekkerus, 55, who has lived and worked in Moorhead his whole life, said he hasn’t fallen for the narrative.

“I’m not on the bandwagon that every street in Moorhead is bad,” Bekkerus said, noting that Moorhead has plenty of “beautiful” streets and it’s primarily major thoroughfares like Main Avenue that need the most work.

“I think that overall Moorhead streets are in pretty good shape. There’s certainly areas that have adventuresome driving,” he added, laughing.

Maintenance matters

Moorhead’s capacity to keep its streets less adventurous could depend on sealcoating. Ideally, there would be 12 miles coated a year, said Moorhead’s city engineer Bob Zimmerman. In 2012, about 2.7 miles have been sealcoated.

The layer of oil and rock chips sprayed on a road helps keep water from soaking into the base and destroying the foundation.

“Up until these last several years we’ve actually had a good reputation, but it’s become noticeable now,” said Councilwoman Nancy Otto, a deterioration she attributed to slacking sealcoating.

Generally speaking, for every dollar spent on preventative maintenance like sealcoating, the city delays spending $6 to $10 in the future on more serious renovations, according to Moorhead engineering documents.

If a street goes too long without sealcoating, the next step is a mill and overlay process, in which top layers of the asphalt must be grinded down and replaced. To mill and overlay one mile of street, the estimated cost is $522,000. One mile of sealcoating costs around $44,500.

Because sealcoating is lagging behind, 36 percent of Moorhead road miles are now on the edge of needing an overlay.

“That’s a point when you need to make those investments or it will definitely, dramatically decrease,” Zimmerman said.

Beyond that point, foundation damage is not far away, he said, requiring partial or full reconstruction, which costs on average $2.2 million per mile.

Chris Brungardt, West Fargo’s assistant director for public works, estimated streets could last 35 to 40 years with proper maintenance. And without it, that lifetime is cut in half.

“When a road gets so bad it doesn’t help to do any patching,” Brungardt said. “Just a like a house, you’re not going to put a house on a bad foundation.”

Building into budget

Moorhead’s budget for sealcoating has remained the same for four straight years, Martin said. Street maintenance data provided by Martin show the sealcoating supplies budget has been locked at $212,420 since 2008, including rock, asphalt and oil.

“We just have not had those types of revenues to be able to put a lot of new money into any of the operating budgets,” City Manager Michael Redlinger said.

In 2011, Fargo – which has more than double the road mileage that Moorhead has – spent $400,000 on sealcoating, including both supplies and labor. West Fargo plans $300,000 per year on patching, sealcoating and overlays.

Eilertson said the price of sealcoating has gone up by 50 percent in the past five years, which Fargo has been able to weather in part due to its sales tax funds. Regardless of budgets, when the price of oil goes up, the cost for everything goes up.

“We don’t have any rock locally. We’re in the Red River Valley,” he said. “We always have to truck it in, no matter what.”

Because of Moorhead’s flood control plans, capital funds have gone to levees and buyouts in recent years. “It was a community decision to focus completely on the river corridor and protect the city,” Hintermeyer said.

So when budgets got tight, Martin said he chose to keep staff on during the winter months for snow removal, which requires more hands than pavement maintenance.

“We’re doing the repairs with the money we’ve got. It’s not that we’re hoarding the cash and not doing it,” Martin said.

Otto said the 2013 budget is pretty well set – though the final version isn’t approved until December – but she believes a more regular rotation of sealcoating should be a budgeting priority in 2014.

“This is just something that we are going to have to build into our budget,” Otto said. “Either you pay now or you’re going to pay a lot more later, so we have to be aware of it.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Erik Burgess at (701) 241-5518

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