Mesabi Daily News: INFRASTRUCTURE ‘CRIPPLING’ RANGE CITIES
HIBBING — To keep up with Hibbing’s 227 miles of paved roads and 81 miles of “crumbling” sanitary and storm water sewers, the city needs help.
“We can only do so much,” said Mayor Rick Cannata. “We can only raise taxes so much and go back to the taxpayers so many times. No one wants to pay more, and we can’t keep going back year after year.”
Cannata appealed to U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan during a forum Friday to discuss transportation and infrastructure needs. Several Range mayors, local wastewater treatment managers, economic developers and local and regional planners were also present.
Held at Hibbing City Hall, it was the first of two scheduled forums, with a second one slated for 11:30 a.m. today in Hermantown.
Nolan is the sole member of Minnesota’s House Delegation on the Transportation & Infrastructure Committee. He’s also on subcommittees for Highways and Transit, Aviation, and Water Resources and the Environment, among others.
“A strong economy requires strong infrastructure,” said the third-term congressman. “It’s vital to have good, strong infrastructure to maintain and develop businesses.”
Nolan acknowledged the many challenges in terms of transportation and infrastructure, while also noting the upside — President Donald Trump wants to spend $1 trillion in that arena.
“I’m in a position to have an impact,” he told stakeholders. “That’s why I’m holding these forums to learn about what the challenges in your communities are.”
Listing some of the “perplexing challenges,” Nolan spoke briefly about mercury standards, broadband, necessary repairs to the Soo Locks — not only for mining purposes but for national security — and issues with the Harbor Maintenance Fund.
Closer to home, he also mentioned the Highway 53 project, Highway 169 roadway work between Tower and Ely, the eight remaining miles of the Highway 169 Cross Range Expressway and the Central Iron Range Sanitary Sewer District (CIRSSD).
“There are some really big challenges here … just enormous,” said Nolan just prior to lending his ear. “But the opportunities are great too.”
More than a dozen officials testified as to the main issues in their cities, businesses or areas of expertise.
Cannata touched on the mercury standards, noting how the city has sunk $7 million into the wastewater treatment facility in recent years to meet the mandate. He also mentioned federal assistance for the Range Regional Airport, the need for more broadband and other Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) standards.
“We are all in this together, you know,” he said. “We need to get more money and know where to go so we don’t have to keep going back to the taxpayers and force them to pay for things.”
Virginia Mayor Larry Cuffe said the city has had to raise the levy by nearly 30 percent in recent years, due in large part to building a new $20 million stand-alone wastewater treatment plant. During the process of building, mercury standards changed and the plant no longer meets the standards, forcing the city to negotiate with the MPCA for an extension.
He also petitioned for federal dollars to assist the city with its steam distribution lines, which are collapsing due to age.
“We are the largest producer and deliverer of steam to residential customers in the world,” said Cuffe. “ …But our system is not efficient. I’d estimate that we have over 100 steam leaks. We need to do more than patchwork. We need to replace it.”
The average steam customer in Virginia is paying $200 even before they receive any heat, said Cuffe.
“We’d like to find a way to convert our system,” he said. “We need federal assistance to move forward with that.”
Norm Miranda, executive director of CIRSSD, touted the district’s accomplishment of constructing a $28 million new wastewater treatment plant for the communities of Chisholm, Buhl, Kinney and Great Scott Township without the use of federal dollars. The new plant is anticipated to start up next week, he added.
CIRSSD is in the process of securing funds for the mercury treatment portion of the facility, and meeting the unfunded federal mandate.
“The state is stepping up again,” said Miranda, while also mentioning operations and maintenance costs. “… And now it’s time for the federal government to step up too.”
Miranda also spoke about the deteriorating underground conveyance system, noting the systems were built long ago by the mining companies and likely not with the best of materials.
“A replacement program is necessary,” he added.
Nashwauk Mayor Ben DeNucci talked about the City of Keewatin’s failing wastewater treatment plant as a main impetus to a joint powers board that includes the Nashwauk Public Utilities Commission (NPUC), Lone Pine Township, Swan Lake Area and Greenway township to create a regional pond system which would replace aging wastewater treatment facilities.
He explained how progress on the project lagged as the MPCA reviewed elements of the proposed pond system, and findings of two former mining reservoirs as lakes will delay it even longer.
“The MPCA now needs two years to research this,” said DeNucci. “… Keewatin doesn’t have two years. They needed a new plant last year.”
DeNucci asked Nolan to step in to help expedite the process. He also shared his thoughts on the pending sulfate/sulfide standards currently under review.
Familiar with this joint wastewater project, John Jamnick of JPJ Engineering said they are struggling to get permits for the $21 million facility and how the MPCA’s antidegradation review will negatively affect the project.
John Minne, senior civil engineer at Barr Engineering, stood up for the small communities, specifically Hoyt Lakes and Silver Bay, arguing that smaller communities face the same infrastructure needs and mandates as larger cities but don’t quite have the same volume of taxpayers or resources.
Also commenting on infrastructure issues were Wade Leonard, president/CEO of Rice Lake Construction Group; Chris Vreeland of Hoyt Lakes City Council; and Dave Sherman, City of Babbitt Public Utilities Commission.
Duane Hill of the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) touched on highway transportation needs, citing the major gaps in funding and how that has affected Northeastern Minnesota.
He used the Highway 169 Cross Range Expressway — the 8.4 mile gap between Pengilly and Bovey — as an example of needs in this region. With a current estimated price tag of $135 million, he said there are concerns of congestion, safety and future development along that corridor.
State Rep. Julie Sandstede, DFL-Hibbing, and St. Louis County Commissioner Mike Jugovich were present and said a few words, as did Shaun Germolus of Range Regional Airport and Scott Dane of Associated Contract Loggers & Truckers of Minnesota.