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Minnesota rates a 'C' on infrastructure

A report card from civil engineers gives Minnesota mediocre marks for the state of roads, bridges, water and other public works.

ST PAUL, Minn. — A "C" is a passing grade in school, but it's most likely not what you strive for when it comes to roads, bridges and your water supply.

That's the grade the American Society of Civil Engineers gave to Minnesota's infrastructure, in a new report card rating all of the states on how they're taking care of the public assets many take for granted. 

The engineers rated the state in 10 different areas, and delivered a report card with a GPA of a "C," defined as mediocre in need of attention.

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The grades ranged from a "B" for aviation down to a "D+" grade for the states roads. Bridges, dams, wastewater, and energy received "C" grades, while drinking water, transit and ports mustered only a "C-" mark.

In the report, which is published once every four years, the engineers point out that infrastructure is the backbone of the state's economy and essential to maintaining the quality of life here. However, those facilities are showing their age and were designed for a different era.

"Bridges in Minnesota need more than $8 billion dollars in funding over the next 20 years for rehabilitation and repair needs," Katie Zadrozny, a civil engineer who co-chaired the Infrastructure Report Card effort, told reporters at a capitol press conference.

Zadrozny said Minnesota compares well to surrounding states when it comes to the percentage of bridges rated in "poor" condition by the federal government, but many of the bridges formerly rates as good have now slipped into the "fair" category.

Lawmakers who joined the engineers at the news conference said it's imperative the legislature pass a bonding bill, especially with the state looking at a projected $9 billion surplus. Those public works construction bills are typically funded with the sale of general obligation bonds, along with some money from the state's cash accounts.

"We can't have this cycle where this is the bonding bill year and this one is not," Senator Sandy Pappas, a St. Paul Democrat, remarked.

"Every year needs to be the bonding bill year because we're so far behind on infrastructure."

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The engineers noted Minnesota still has at least 100,000 lead pipe water service lines. They pointed out water mains are bursting at an increasing rate, including pipes that have been buried under streets for more than a century.

John Linc Stine, the former head of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency who now heads the clean water group Freshwater, thanked the engineers for their working putting together a report that raises red flags about public works.

He said some smaller communities simply can't afford to upgrade their wastewater treatment and water treatments on their own, passing exorbitant user fees on to their customers.

"The are aging water infrastructure systems, many of which were built during the Depression in the 1930s, or in the 1940s," Linc Stine explained.

"If you're thinking about something that was built in 1935, it can no longer be bought on Amazon.com. So, it's important we support our communities and these volunteer engineers."

Linc Stine also noted that the definition of clean water and wastewater have changed quite a bit over time as science unveils more about the hazards posed by some contaminants.

Rep. Dean Urdahl, who has chaired the House bonding committees in the past, said the cost of rising cost of public works projects is concerning.

"With these high costs it's important we do all we can to stretch these resources to get the most bang for our buck, so to speak," Rep. Urdahl told reporters.

He also said bonding is one of the best ways to raise the local match for federal dollars that will be flowing into Minnesota through the new Infrastructure and Jobs Act passed late last year.

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