Street view of recent overlay in West St. Paul.

Smoother Riding: Maintaining West St. Paul Streets

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West St. Paul’s budget for asphalt has more than tripled in the last five years as the city plays catch up on delayed maintenance. Those improvements are thanks in part to the city-wide sales tax approved by voters in 2018 that went into effect in 2020. Those funds are specifically earmarked for roads and can’t be used on anything else.

“We were excited by the idea of wider sidewalks and boulevards,” said Liz Gillen, who lives along Moreland Avenue, a street that saw full reconstruction last year. “It was a long summer of work due to the nature of the project, but our kids loved watching the construction vehicles!” 

The work is making an impact, as West St. Paul’s pavement condition index (PCI)—an industry standard for measuring the condition of roads—has jumped to 65 in 2021. The measurement is on a 100-point scale and the city is in the “fair” range. It’s also just barely above St. Paul, according to a 2019 story.

Graph of pavement condition index (PCI).

While the improvement is encouraging, take it with a grain of salt as maintaining it will require continued work.

Approaches to Road Repair

“15 years ago there was basically one project per year, a reconstruction, say a half mile to three-quarters of a mile long,” said City Engineer and Public Works Director Ross Beckwith. “There wasn’t much more going on besides crack sealing and seal coating, but the need was there and growing. Now we’re doing in-house overlays, reconstructions, and more mill and overlays.”

West St. Paul has transformed the way it approaches street maintenance, including doing more of the work in-house.

“We bought a new-to-us paver five years ago as the old one used to catch fire (literally) quite often,” Beckwith said. “The public works crew is doing a great job—it doesn’t look like ‘maintenance’ when they’re done!”

A West St. Paul street with a recent in-house overlay.

Here are three ways West St. Paul approaches street maintenance including ballpark costs per half mile of street:

  • Total reconstruction: A complete rebuild of the street all the way down to the subgrade, including water main, sewer, curb, sidewalk, etc. Lasts 50 years, costs $2.2 million, and residents are assessed for 35% of the cost.
  • Mill and overlay: The top layer of asphalt is ground down (milled) and the street is repaved (overlay), some minor curb work is often done as well. Lasts 10-15 years, costs $220,000, and residents are assessed.
  • In-house overlay: Just a new layer of asphalt, effectively a bandage until the street can be reconstructed. Lasts 5-10 years, costs $70,000, and residents are not assessed.

While those costs escalate quickly, it’s important to note that the approach depends on the condition of the road and the subgrade. In many cases the subgrade is poor, which means a simple overlay won’t do much and cracks will reappear almost immediately. While it might appear cheaper to just repave every five years compared to a total reconstruction, that’s similar to painting over a crack. Eventually you have to bite the bullet and fix it right.

“We have to remember though that all these in-house overlays are not fixing what lies beneath, there is a ton of reconstruction/underground work needed in this city,” said Beckwith.

This is also a simplified look at the problem. A total reconstruction may last 50 years, but that’s only with required maintenance along the way, including a mill and overlay. Street maintenance is an investment, and while it’s a cost everyone pays in property taxes, residents on these streets often have to pay their share.

“Seeing that assessment number was a hard pill to swallow, but we plan to be in our house for a long time and we’re grateful for the major improvements,” said Gillen. “We feel as though the work added both value and curb appeal to our home.”

Current Projects

West St. Paul is responsible for 65 miles of streets and five miles of alleys. That’s a lot of maintenance to keep up with. It’s worth noting the city is not responsible for state or county roads, which include Robert Street and a number of the major arteries. 

  • This year’s total reconstruction project is Crusader Avenue. Last year it was Moreland. For the next two years it’s Annapolis (costs shared with St. Paul). 
  • There were no mill and overlay projects this year as the city saves up money, but next year there will be 3.2 miles worth of mill and overlay projects.
  • This year a number of streets will receive in-house overlays, roughly 2.5 to 3 miles.

If it feels like your street is in poor condition and you’re wondering why it’s not on the map, you’re not alone. It’s a difficult ranking process that often means waiting your turn. Emerson and Lothenbach are vying for the next place on the reconstruction schedule in 2026, which means it’s not worth doing an overlay now—even though they might need it.

Stretching Dollars

In recent years the city has also done drive lane or parking lane overlays, where they ran new asphalt down the middle of the street (where cars drive), but not on the edges (where cars park). 

“Our budget was tiny and our need was/is great,” said Beckwith. “When people are driving through these potholed roads and rattling their teeth we figured it’s better to have a smoother ride while you are driving versus where you are parking.”

It was a bandage approach to stretch city dollars and avoid patching the same potholes five times a year.

“For every two streets we did this way we were able to pave a third,” said Beckwith. 

With better budgets the city has moved away from this approach, though there have been a few parking lane repaves on streets that previously had drive lane repaves, as a way to to finish off those streets, minimize patching, and bring them up to a relatively consistent level.

View of a street with recent parking lane repaving.
A West St. Paul street with recent parking lane overlay.

Driving Forward

“There has not been money to do anything with until just recently,” said Beckwith. “It’s exciting where we are heading.”

Other major infrastructure improvements on the horizon include Dakota County projects to install a roundabout at Thompson and Oakdale in 2023 and redo Delaware Avenue in 2025.

Street changes have also been an opportunity to improve bike and pedestrian infrastructure, such as filling sidewalk gaps or improving accessibility. 

“We recall how difficult it was to come down the Moreland hill on foot with our little kids when there was no sidewalk,” said Gillen. “It feels much safer for everyone now. It seems as though all the neighbors who travel the sidewalk now enjoy it too.”

West St. Paul Reader provides neighborhood news supported by neighbors. Become a member today.

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