Paying the piper

Duluth’s Fourth Street reconstruction project, which wrapped up for the year in November and will resume in the spring, has seen a great deal of community interest. Probably the biggest issue for most people was the loss of Fourth Street’s massive boulevard trees, which had to be cut down to accommodate the project. Another issue that concerned people was the redesign of the intersection at Woodland and Fourth Street, which will make it safer for traffic and pedestrians but involves the loss of part of an avenue and a few much-needed parking spaces. But one significant feature of the Fourth Street project has passed without much notice by the public—water mains.
According to Eric Shaffer, the city’s chief engineer of utilities, the Fourth Street project was the first time that the city used cured-in-place pipe for water mains. Essentially, CIP pipe eliminates the need to dig up a pipe along its entire length to fix it. To install CIP pipe, a hole is dug at either end of the stretch being treated, which can be hundreds of feet long. A felt liner saturated with a special resin is pulled through the pipe and expanded with steam or hot water so that the liner is flush against the old pipe. At 140 degrees, the resin cures and the felt solidifies into a new pipe.
The city has successfully used CIP pipe for sewer mains for several years, but for water mains, it’s a “relatively new technology,” said Shaffer. One difference between water and sewer mains is that water mains have a pressure of about 100 pounds per square inch; in sewer mains, the pressure is negligible. The first attempt to install CIP pipe on Fourth Street failed, because the felt liner wasn’t drawn through the main evenly and it cured improperly. The second attempt (which the contractor conducted at their expense) worked; it passed all the pressure tests. CIP pipe is now another option that the city has for water mains.
The city of Duluth has 428 miles of water mains under the streets (it has a similar amount of sanitary sewer pipe, and about 550 miles of natural gas pipe). Fifty percent of the city’s water mains are more than 80 years old. In and of itself, this is not necessarily a bad thing. According to Shaffer, some of the best-quality pipe in the city is 100 years old, while pipe from the Fifties and Sixties is the poorest. The older pipe is a higher grade of cast iron and it is thicker. “Since [pipe from the Fifties and Sixties is] not as thick, you don’t have near as much metal [for corrosion] to eat away,” said Shaffer. “And so they get holes in a less number of years.”
Of course, age brings other problems. While the 100-year-old pipe is holding up well, the joints that connect the pipe are not. Moreover, the old pipe is brittle. When it’s sitting undisturbed in the ground, it’s fine, but when street construction impacts it, the pipe tends to break. In the 1990s, a frustrating problem that the city had with new street construction was that, after being shaken up and disturbed by the construction, pipe that hadn’t broken in 100 years began to break. This created a stressful and unsightly situation where utility crews would have to sink holes through brand-new pavement to fix pipes. To address the problem, Shaffer instituted a new city-wide standard: If a street project uncovers pipe that is 80 years old or older, the pipe must be replaced.
Interestingly, Duluth’s pipes, unlike pipes in most other municipalities, corrode from the outside in rather than the inside out. According to Shaffer, this is because Duluth’s water, drawn from 72 feet below the surface of Lake Superior, is of such high quality.
Today, most new water pipes are made of high-density polyethylene rather than metal. Shaffer said it is hoped that all pipes being laid today will last 100 years. With 428 miles of water mains in the city, a 100-year cycle would dictate that about 4 miles of pipe be replaced each year. This goal is not being met. Shaffer estimated that 4 miles of water mains would cost “at least $4 million” to replace, and this is money that the water utility does not have. Not only is the utility’s budget weak, but much of the money that was intended to be spent on other projects is now being redirected to the upcoming Superior Street reconstruction, stressing the budget further.
A big problem for planning is the uncertainty that surrounds the city’s street repair program. Under the city’s current system, instituted in 2014, street repairs are funded by a monthly fee that changes from year to year, based on what is politically expedient. In the two years since the fee system began, the amount of city-funded street reconstruction accomplished in the city has been woefully low—a few blocks in a few places. Uncertainty about the fee makes it difficult for the city to plan very far ahead for street projects, and this makes it difficult to coordinate water and sewer main repairs.
“Hopefully someday they’ll come up with a funding methodology for street projects and we’ll be able to sit down and list the streets we’re going to do for five years,” said Shaffer. “If and when that occurs, then we’ll be able to coordinate [our] five-year plans much better.”
The last time water rates were raised was three years ago, when they increased by 3 percent. In February, Shaffer will bring a recommendation to the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) that estimates how much additional revenue he thinks the water utility will need to fulfill its obligations. A 5 percent increase in water rates would yield about an additional $600,000 in revenue.  Shaffer thinks he will ask for somewhere between 3 and 6 percent. He said that an increase was overdue. “Six or seven years ago we said, ‘Let’s try to start bringing the rates up, so I can get to 4 miles a year.’ But we’ve never made that because, obviously, rate increases are not popular. And so right now, just with inflation—again, if inflation is 2 percent a year, I keep going backwards.…We needed a rate increase last year, [but] we did not pursue one.”

Library employees still hate library
The Duluth Public Library doesn’t get a break, especially from some of the people who work there. Every last little difficulty and problem that occurs within the 36-year-old facility is interpreted by some to be evidence of the facility’s underlying worthlessness. At the November 24 library board meeting, the board discussed the issue and decided that the library had been “dysfunctional from the beginning.”
It’s understandable that they’re crabby. They wanted a new library, and for a while it looked like they were going to get one, until The Reader exposed the shady processes by which the city administration was pursuing that goal. Now the idea of a new library is gone. The current administration is focused on refurbishing the existing facility. Members of the consulting group TKDA are scheduled to give a presentation on a mid-price renovation to city officials on January 27.
There is no question that the library needs refurbishing. All of its major systems—electrical and HVAC chief among them—are at the end of their useful lives and need to be replaced. But it’s important to note that many of the library’s problems also stem from a lack of routine maintenance. The library has had little of that, probably from the day it was built. If a two-dollar spring on a damper breaks, an air duct might not work properly and people will be too hot or too cold. Some library employees use that as evidence that the library sucks in its entirety. But springs and other minor things have been breaking down for years, as minor things tend to do. A 2006 report by Johnson Controls identified dozens of fixes that needed to be made. Few, if any, of them ever were.
Whatever refurbishment ultimately takes place, it is crucial that the library arrange for regular maintenance checkups by a qualified building professional. This means paying someone to walk through the facility every three or six months to note all the fixes that need to be made. Doing this one thing could have benefits far larger than the price tag of the service itself, because it would help prevent small failures from accumulating and creating larger failures.
Apart from the building systems, many library board members and employees are critical of the library’s layout, which they say is inefficient and unwelcoming. It seems like a lot of people are still focused on hating the library, rather than working with what they have to find solutions. It’s sad, because what they have is actually pretty cool. For example, in the past, I have suggested that they lower the bookshelves and turn them by ninety degrees to allow for more natural light penetration, and convert the entire front third of the top floor into a spacious, open, sunny lounge. This would make the library safer and more inviting, and it wouldn’t cost an enormous amount of money. I’m sure there are all sorts of reasonable solutions like these, and library employees would be the best people to come up with them, if only they would give the building a chance.

Mayor Emily Larson recently hired long-time city auditor Wayne Parson for the post of chief financial officer. Mr. Parson seems a good choice. He seems to have a firm grasp of the quarter-billion-dollar annual enterprise that is the city of Duluth. From a journalistic perspective, I can attest that he has always been prompt and forthcoming when answering questions or supplying me with requested documents. Thus, as a gesture of professional goodwill, I would like to make a public announcement on his behalf.
ATTENTION: There is no S at the end of Wayne’s name. It’s Parson, not Parsons.
I don’t know why there’s so much confusion over this particular name. Nobody calls the city attorney Gunnar Johnsons. Nobody calls the mayor Emily Larsons. But at every meeting, Mr. Parson has to listen to city councilors, members of the public, and even his own colleagues refer to him as Mr. Parsons. Some people get it wrong all the time. A few get it right. Some people get it right sometimes and wrong sometimes, which is a little troubling—what else do they guess about when they’re conducting city business?
This may bother me more than it does Mr. Parson himself. Whatever people call him, he merely stands politely at the lectern, waiting for the next question to be asked.