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Northland infrastructure grades as average

Brady Slater

Forum News Service

Standing in a still-new boardroom at the Duluth International Airport and feeling the thrust of F-16 fighters taking off as the 148th Fighter Wing went to work outside seemed both apropos and at-odds as a setting for the delivery of a report card on Twin Ports infrastructure Monday.

On the one hand, the new terminal and 2 miles of airtstrip being rebuilt for the first time in 60-odd years count as infrastructure and helped to buoy a B-minus grade for Northland aviation.

On the other, the glowing orange tails of supersonic jets receding to the horizon spoke convincingly for the military — the budget for which outstrips other quality-of-life needs such as infrastructure, several times over, said Rep. Rick Nolan, who was having none of it in a bald half-hour speech.

"These endless wars of choice are not serving us well," said Nolan, DFL-Crosby, deriding military involvement in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Somalia and "20 other countries" across the globe. He called defense spending at the expense of other categories such as infrastructure, college tuition, veterans health care or medical research "the elephant in the room." He said he wanted to talk about it so that others would keep the conversation going.

"I'm telling you about it because I want people to start talking about it," Nolan told a crowd of mostly project engineers and infrastructure officials. "It's something we have to come to terms with."

Having announced in February that he will retire from Congress and not seek re-election in the 8th Congressional District, Nolan seemed freed to deliver a bare address that resonated beyond topic — which was a yearlong review of Twin Ports-area infrastructure by local engineers from across the public and private spectrum. Their report card, from the American Society of Civil Engineers, gave local roads a D-plus grade and drinking water infrastructure a D — while overall the Northland achieved a passing C grade. It was better than the national average of D-plus, said more than one person in search of positives.

The grades across seven categories became particularly relevant for Duluth Mayor Emily Larson, who spoke of how the city just experienced eight water main breaks over the weekend, including one that left 1,200 people in the Lakeside neighborhood without water throughout the night. A decaying, century-old water-delivery system in Duluth was the main reason for the D in the category, explained Craig Bursch, chair of the engineers' report card committee.

"What I know is residents don't want a lot of crises in these areas — it's scary and it rattles (them)," Larson said.

Seven categories of infrastructure were represented in the report: aviation, bridges, drinking water, ports, roads, solid waste and waste water. Notably missing was railroads.

"A port isn't a port without road and rail," said Deb DeLuca of the Duluth Seaway Port Authority. She outlined 14 miles of seawall between Duluth and Superior — about half of which was still in need of new steel sheet pilings and modernization.

Throughout the program, a person from each area of expertise could talk about victories along the way — and how many more were waiting to be won given more funding.

But because of the pick-and-choose nature of infrastructure spending, Nolan said every project needed to be fought for and that only the smartest, toughest and most determined teams were generally awarded the projects. After coming out strong in support of President Donald Trump's steel tariffs earlier this month, Nolan called out the Republican president's commitment to infrastructure, saying Trump's $1.5 trillion plan isn't even on the Republican agenda in the House of Representatives and includes only $200 billion in federal dollars — enough to generate about another couple hundred million in state and local dollars, Nolan explained.

"Apparently, $1.3 trillion is supposed to just come from state and local grants," Nolan chided.

The afternoon at the airport brought revelations beyond Nolan's. As one official after another spoke, a theme emerged about the need to maintain and constantly upgrade all categories of infrastructure.

"We've been living off the depreciation of the investments of our parents for decades and decades," Bursch said, describing an infrastructure boom in the 1950s-60s. A lot of that technology is still in place today and much of it in need of replacement — like the airport runway, which is nearing two-thirds complete.

"It's just time," said airport Executive Director Tom Werner.

After addressing the report card, Larson was heading to the state Capitol for a full day of advocacy meetings with legislators on Tuesday. Residents don't want to hear about the struggle for solutions, the Duluth mayor said. "They want a path to get something done."