St. Paul, Minn., city engineer says strong infrastructure key to economic development

St. Paul, Minnesota’s city engineer said a strong infrastructure is needed to draw new business to cities and foster economic development, and uncertain federal transportation funding works against that.

“It takes a lot of money to run our basic infrastructure and we’re severely underfunded,” said John Maczko, city engineer at the St. Paul Public Works Department. “We’re living off the backs of what my grandfather and great grandfathers built.”

President Barack Obama signed into law May 29 the Highway and Transportation Funding Act of 2015, extending funding for the Highway Trust Fund for 60 days through the end of July. And not knowing if a long-term plan is on the horizon makes city planning challenging.

“Without a strong infrastructure system in place there is no economic development,” he said. “It’s critical in order to get goods and services to and from a jobs site and how well the job is done depends on a well-operating transportation network.”

The city’s transportation system provides a means of bringing all city services to the citizens. “Sanitary, safety, life line services, communications, it is a very integrated network.”

Strong infrastructure can bring millions in additional economic development dollars to a city like St. Paul, population 294,000.

Maczko quoted a 2008 analysis on the city’s Phalen Blvd. corridor where the city invested $50 million in an old development site. “That $50 million investment resulted in about $500 million in economic development and 500 jobs. That was a ten to one return on our investment.”

The city is operating under a 20-year capital replacement plan that pumps about $20 million per year into the city’s infrastructure system to overlay and reconstruct existing infrastructure.

The city is working on several big projects this year that have not been affected by the lack of funding from the
Highway Trust Fund. However, Maczko said, without knowing if more federal dollars are on the way, the city’s future infrastructure projects could be severely limited.

St. Paul is currently replacing two bridges between Wabasha and 7th St. at a cost of $10 million and a road project on 3rd Street, a major thoroughfare, has a $4 million price tag. The new bridges will have a life span of 100 years and the new road should last 60 years, he said.

The majority of the city’s funding for transportation comes from the state gas tax. The tax was raised by referendum in 2006 to 28.50 cents per gallon, and Maczko said it still does not generate enough revenue to meet the cost of maintaining infrastructure.

“We’re not getting enough from the gas tax to cover our needs,” he said. “The problem is while vehicles are more energy efficient, that doesn’t reduce the demand on the streets.”