St. Paul tackling pothole repairs on residential streets this summer

13 July 2023

St. Paul Public Works crews patch potholes on Cottage Street in St. Paul’s North End neighborhood on Thursday, July 13, 2023. (John Autey / Pioneer Press)

In his 22 years on St. Paul Public Works road crews and his 61 years on this earth, the potholes that Randy Hedican has tacked, filled, raked, tamped and rolled into submission this season are the worst he’s ever seen following a freeze/thaw cycle.

“This one was really bad,” said Hedican, pointing to a long black swath of fresh asphalt snaking eastward from Dale Street past multiple homes along Cottage Avenue on Thursday.

Before his five-man team arrived to shovel steaming hot mix, drivers were left to navigate craters up and down the avenue on their own. More than one Cottage Avenue resident came out to say hello or waved and thanked the Public Works team as they drove by.

That’s better than the passing expletive shouted out a car window, which Hedican also has been subject to in his 22 years in the field.

From his city-issue pick-up truck, Hedican produced a clutch of papers listing streets throughout his work district. In a normal summer, he’d prioritize calls and complaints, driving a short radius around a reported pothole to see if the street warranted an entire crew of workers or if he could fill the pothole himself with asphalt he keeps in a bucket in his truck.

But this year has been far from normal, and record-setting snows, thunderstorms, flooding and a rapid freeze/thaw cycle have taken an unprecedented toll on St. Paul’s residential streets.

‘Everything, everywhere all at once’

Public Works officials have asked residents to hold off on calling in pothole locations, which are effectively everywhere. Instead, with pothole repair on busy main “arterial” avenues mostly complete, crews and crew supervisors like Hedican are making their way, street by street, through the city’s residential streets, with the goal of filling in “everything, everywhere all at once,” to quote a movie title. It’s a citywide full court press instead of a surgical strike.

“We are going to get to your residential street,” said Jeannette Rebar, a community engagement coordinator with St. Paul Public Works.

St. Paul Public Works crews patch potholes on Cottage Street in St. Paul’s North End neighborhood on Thursday, July 13, 2023. (John Autey / Pioneer Press)

Rather than respond on a complaint basis, the city is investing $2.55 million to improve street pavement conditions citywide through “route patching,” which has roped in all available Public Works street maintenance hands and resources.

All 530 miles of residential streets and 2,000 alleys will be reviewed and patched this summer and into the fall, according to a recent announcement from the department. Crews will eventually return to areas that may need more extensive work and follow-up with skim-paving, which involves layering asphalt over a larger portion of the street.

On average, a St. Paul Public Works crew will hand shovel about 15 to 20 tons of asphalt per day from the back of a single-axle dump truck, which might seem like it would take a strong back and arms — and it does. Nevertheless, Hedican cautioned that proper shovel technique calls for less hoisting and throwing and more of a judo-like movement that works with gravity to guide the steaming black hot mix from the back of the truck and into the street.

In other words, use gravity, not shoulders and biceps. Bend at the knees and spare your back. Repeat for eight hours. Stay hydrated and bring snacks — Hedican’s pick-me-up of choice on Thursday was a small baggie of baby carrot sticks and a container of Skoal chewing tobacco. Gatorade works, too.

Time to invest in road reconstruction — through a new sales tax?

St. Paul Public Works patches potholes year-round, but Hedican waved away the words “cold mix” at their mere mention.

The kind of mix crews lay down in the cold weather months is something akin to a band-aid in his view, destined to rub off with pressure from passing cars, compared to the intricate stitch of asphalt heated to 200 or even 300 degrees and rolled into place with a one-man roller, a vehicle operated with joystick-like controls instead of pedal and brakes. Ahead of each crew, a single worker armed with the equivalent of a large hot glue gun lines each pothole with black bonding tack in preparation to make the asphalt stick.

St. Paul Public Works crews patch potholes on Cottage Street in St. Paul’s North End neighborhood on Thursday, July 13, 2023. (John Autey / Pioneer Press)

Still, even hot mix has its limits, and leaders at City Hall are focused on a more lasting fix for the capital city’s notoriously crumbling streets. St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter and most of the city council are poised to ask voters to authorize an additional city sales tax to fund arterial street reconstruction, as well as parks and rec improvements. The mayor’s goal is to triple the city sales tax from 0.5 percent to 1.5 percent for 20 years. The council recently directed city staff to begin assembling ballot language that could go before city voters this November.

City streets should be reconstructed every 60 years, according to the mayor’s office, but reduced state funding and years of deferred maintenance have limited the city to a 124-year road replacement cycle.

Still, following national inflation and interest rate hikes, as well as growing property taxes, asking voters to dig even deeper into their personal budget to pay for retail and services has raised some eyebrows, especially with the St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce, which has been flatly opposed.

With the goal of boosting public transit access, the Legislature recently authorized a .75 percent sales tax increase throughout the seven-county region, on top of a .25 percent sales tax for affordable housing efforts.

The city council next week likely will discuss a potential ballot question over whether to increase property taxes to subsidize early childcare and early childhood learning opportunities. Council members have said if the question goes to ballot, it likely would happen in 2024, not this November.

As pothole repair unfolds this summer, Public Works officials ask residents to help out in the following ways:

• Only report potholes on arterial — or main — streets at this time.

• Be patient: Public Works is concentrating on pothole patching all residential streets, so it can’t respond to individual complaints as quickly. The department will not be publishing route maps as most every route will be worked on.

• Move vehicles when you see pothole patching crews in your neighborhood. The city will not be posting temporary “No Parking” signs.

• Do not push any materials, including leaves, grass or debris into the street. Properly bag and dispose of any leaves, dirt and grass clippings.

• Do not put garbage or recycling carts in the street. Make sure carts are only placed on the boulevard or driveway apron, not the street.

For information about St. Paul’s pothole patching operations, visit

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