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Neglect Of Local Roads Growing, Say County Engineers

Madelyn Beck
A road beside a corn field in Galesburg, Illinois.

Brian Otten likens his process for dealing with road problems to a triage system.

As the highway engineer in Perry County in southern Illinois, Otten says he gets calls about potholes or cracked drainage pipes. 

“And we’ll go out there and take a look and say, this pipe is about fall in and somebody could have an accident here and really get hurt. That takes precedence over the inconvenience of a pothole,” he said.

Problems on interstate highways and bridges get a lot of attention. But you may be seeing more potholes and cracks on the roads you take to work or even live on, particularly in rural areas.

Counties and townships are struggling to maintain them, and county engineers say without more money for basic maintenance, they could be getting worse.

Otten oversees about 500 miles of county roads and rural routes. He says, despite doing what the county can afford for maintenance, the wear and tear is starting to show.

“They can't seem to handle some of the traffic loads that are on them,” he said of the rural routes. “They're busting up on us, and we're having a hard time keeping them glued together.”

It’s happening all over the state, according to Craig Fink, an engineer with Tazewell County and former president of the Illinois Association of County Engineers. And it could get worse.

The association tracks how many miles of roads are having maintenance deferred or suspended all together. The analysis shows this year nearly half of their roads, 47 percent, will suffer from some form of neglect.

“They will not be getting the most basic preservation and protective type of maintenance they need to avoid eventually just going back to gravel or earth or mud,” Fink said.

That’s more than double the bad roads there were five years ago. So, how did we get here?

Counties and townships are responsible for a huge share of Illinois’ road systems — roughly 89,000 miles. Though, in terms of traffic, state routes bear the majority of the burden.

To keep them up, local governments get a piece of what you pay for gasoline and what their residents pay in property taxes.

And - Fink says because of more fuel efficient cars and people driving less - money from the gas tax is now below what it was in 2000.

Local Gas Tax Share

There are other smaller pots of money available for bridge or road projects from the state and fedearl governments. However, in Illinois’ tight fiscal situation, lawmakers have reduced them.

Bigger cities – like Springfield and Peoria - can use money from sales or video gambling or hotel taxes to keep up with construction costs. But smaller towns can’t, Fink said. 

The engineers association says counties, townships and road districts need an additional $650 million a year to properly maintain their roads, to keep the roads from turning back to gravel or oil and chip, or – in Fink’s words - dying.

“So this isn't widening roads out, giving them structural overlays, or certainly not laying out any new roads,” he said. “This is all about just are we able to preserve and protect with proper maintenance, what we have.”

The request comes as Illinois lawmakers are beginning to negotiate an infrastructure plan.

In general, state leaders agree on two essential points about the plan: it’s sorely needed; and, it will take more tax money to pay for it.

How much money, where the money will come from, or what it will pay for are all still up for debate.

State Rep. Ryan Spain, a Republican from Peoria, serves on the House committee that’s hearing all about the needs for improvements to transportation, education and state facilities. He says he supports local roads getting a bigger piece of new transportation funding.

“We do need to remind ourselves that we have fallen 10 or more years behind on just basic maintenance of our existing infrastructure,” he said. “And so catching up on that existing infrastructure needs to be a top priority.”

Still, others are taking a different approach. State Sen. Don DeWitte represents parts the northwest Chicago suburbs and is the highest ranking Republican on the Senate Transportation committee.

He says a priority needs to be long-term investments, and local communities should try to find other ways of funding maintenance.

The priority, he said, is "not so much roads that may simply need overlay or general maintenance work, but roadways that probably need to be rebuilt from the dirt up, roadways that have outlived their useful lifespan."

The county engineers put a price tag on expanding and improving their road system  - about $320 million a year, or $3.2 billion in bonds. That, Fink says, would help them equip the roads to handle larger trucks. 

Gov. J.B. Pritzker has said he wants an infrastructure plan approved this spring. So, lawmakers have a few months to figure out how much money to spend to keep what we have — and how much should be spent on new investments.

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Illinois Issues is in-depth reporting and analysis that takes you beyond the headlines to provide a deeper understanding of our state. Illinois Issues is produced by NPR Illinois in Springfield.

Mary Hansen is a former NPR Illinois reporter.
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