Bridging the gap: Tens of billions invested and problem roads expected to remain

Target 3

Scroll down for part two of the TV story

CENTRAL ILLINOIS (WCIA)– The state’s roads are in disrepair, and people want them fixed quickly.

About a month ago, our Target 3 investigative team looked into the poor condition of bridges across the state, and we walked through where to find out how structures in your area are holding up.

After that story aired, we heard from dozens of viewers asking us to look into the problem of roads as well.

Target 3 took those tips and took to the road, and we found out they’re costing taxpayers more money all the time.

Along the way, we heard comments like: “All of Illinois roads are bad…” and, “The way these bumps are, it’s just…I mean it’s like this here constantly.”

So, what condition are the roads in?

That became a tough question to answer across the board because you can’t compare roads from city to city, from county to county, or even from state to state like you can with bridges.

States and local governments are required to report bridge conditions to the Federal Highway Administration for every bridge, every year, and there’s a federal rating system to follow.

This is a snapshot of the bridges in poor condition by federal standards in Illinois. Click the picture to access the interactive map.
(Courtesy: Federal Hwy Administration)

Roads do not have the same federal oversight as bridges. There is no national rating system for roads, according to a spokesperson for the Highway Administration. Cities and counties have different ways of tracking conditions, that is if they have a system.

“Last year when I came in as city engineer, we just decided we have got to have some kind of a system that’s going to help us figure out how to prioritize where we do these repairs,” shared Danville’s City Engineer Sam Cole.

Cole’s office is responsible for the maintenance of about 177 miles of roads in the City of Danville.

“…So with in-house staff we drove, and if we would do…we did what we’d call a windshield survey. We rated them one to 10,” he explained.

The Pavement Condition Ratings indicate the level of repair needed for each road in Danville. (Data provided by the Danville Engineering Dept.)

Looking at the most recent, and only ratings available so far, from spring 2020, Cole could tell us that 85% of the city’s roads will need some sort of maintenance in the next five years.

“I’m definitely concerned,” he added.

The City of Champaign has a Pavement Condition Index Scale.

“So it’s a 1-100 scale,” explained the Assistant City Engineer for Transportation, Chris Sokolowski.

He simplified it by adding letter grades.

(Data provided by the City of Champaign Public Works Dept.)

If the pavement grade is between 86 and 100, that’s an ‘A’, meaning the road is in excellent condition. This rating was given to 22% of the city’s roads in 2019. If a road rates below 25, it’s an ‘F’ rating, which applied to 7% of Champaign roads in 2019. If a road falls below 10, it failed, which accounted for 1% of the city’s roads in 2019. (See chart above)

“The roads are PCI of 63 overall, which is like a ‘C’, so we’re doing okay,” Sokolowski summarized.

Inspections and ratings are done every four years in Champaign, according to the assistant engineer. The most recent overall ‘C’ rating is from 2019. The same rate applied in 2015.

This data is available back a couple of decades.

“So the average PCI is lower than it was ten years ago,” Sokolowski said.

In 2010, the PCI for all city streets was better, at 68. In 2000, it was 69.

Effingham County Engineer Greg Koester says there is no formal inspection program or rating system at his office.

The exterior of the Effingham County Office Building where the County Engineering Dept. is located.

“It’s a little bit of common sense if there’s an issue or not,” Koester responded.

He said the county doesn’t get many complaints.

“I don’t know if people are just more tolerant or if we’re doing a good job,” he laughed.

Macon County has a similar approach. Compared to the GIS (geographic information system) mapping system in Danville, with ratings listed and color-coded on the roads, the county’s system is “very low tech, low key,” according to Macon County Engineer Bruce Bird.

“Between myself and my road supervisor, it’s just a lot of driving actually,” he added.

Bird says, overall, Macon County roads are in excellent shape.

Macon County Engineer Bruce Bird (left) shows Target 3 Investigator Renée Cooper a map of the roads under reconstruction in Macon County.

Even where the rating systems exist, you can’t accurately compare roads in Danville to the City of Champaign, for example.

“I think everybody assumes their roads are the worst,” Cole said.

But, there’s really no way to prove it.

So, what are the repairs in the works?

Theresa Addis stopped our team to chat as we were shooting video on Ferndale Avenue in Danville. She said she’s lived there for two years.

“Potholes, cracks, tear up your tires. We’ve torn up a lot on this road.” she shared.

Addis said she’s had to replace seven or eight tires in that time period, from damage caused by the street she lives on. She said there’s steady traffic through here every day.

“It’s beyond a state of repair where we could do maintenance to it and kind of bring it back to life,” Cole said, referring to Ferndale Avenue. That, and an overhaul of about a half-mile of W Williams Street will soon be two of the city’s largest rehabilitation projects.

A portion of the about 0.5 mile stretch of Ferndale Avenue to be reconstructed.

Although the engineers allocate money to road repair, they don’t set the budget. It’s a combination of local and mostly state tax money.

Cole said Ferndale Avenue and W. Williams Street will be funded by Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s Rebuild Illinois Capital Plan.

The plan, signed in 2019, promised $33.2 billion to be funneled into Illinois roads and bridges over six years.

When it’s all doled out, Danville will receive a total of $2,176,609.26. Cole said the money won’t even fully cover the cost of reconstructing Ferndale and W Williams, set to be completed by the end of 2022.

Of the approximately 2,800 agencies budgeted into the Capital Plan, the City of Champaign will receive one of the largest sums of money, disregarding a couple of outliers.

“Whenever we talk to any citizen about a request for work, there is definitely more need than we have budget,” Sokolowski said.

The total of $5,341,843.44 is nearly equivalent to the city’s annual road and bridge repair appropriations, according to Sokolowski.

N Neil Street near the intersection of W Columbia Avenue in downtown Champaign. Rebuild Illinois funding freed up money for asphalt repair on this road, according to Sokolowski.

“We’re looking at roads to do resurfacing that, you know, are five, seven, eight years behind where they really should be done,” Bird shared.

Reconstruction of a two-mile stretch of road from Oakley Township down to IL Route 105 is underway in Macon County.

“The edges were really crumbling off,” Bird added.

The difference is stark between it, and a section of Reas Bridge Road just completed near Richland Community College in Decatur. Both projects will be funded using a portion of Macon County’s $3,775,716 Rebuild Illinois allotment.

Not all of the Rebuild Illinois money has been allocated yet at any of the agencies we spoke with.

In June, Target 3 reported a section of rural Moccasin Road near Lake Sara will take up about half of Effingham County’s Rebuild Illinois funds, totaling $1,846,983.90.

Koester said the extra funding has been huge for smaller townships in the county that are still trying to maintain roads primarily made of dirt and rocks.

The Capital Plan is the latest in a stream of state money being thrown into our streets. The increase in price continues to fall on the taxpayer.

If we only fix the worst roads, we let so many of the moderate roads get to a terrible condition that we’ll never keep up,” Cole concluded.

After the large-scale repairs, will these roads last?

The state is spending tens of billions of taxpayer dollars to fix roads, but our investigation found that still won’t be enough to get all of Illinois’ roads into good condition.

“I don’t really know the answer to how you address the backlog,” Sokolowski said.

Rebuild Illinois money can only fund transportation improvements that will last at least 13 years, but based on the deteriorating condition of the roads, it’s going to take some innovative thinking to bridge that gap and reconstruct roads that can last for decades.

The thing is, roads are going to deteriorate. So, the question is: How do we keep up with the cost?

For example, Danville’s annual road repair budget hovers around $3 million. Add in the $2.2 million from Rebuild Illinois, and a big need still remains.

Target 3 asked the Danville engineer if throwing all of this money in now is this going to get us back up to speed, or if the state will be in the same situation in 15 years.

“I think that’s always, I mean, I think that’s a great question,” he responded.

I asked the same of Sokolowski, adding, “Is there any new technology that’s working to expand the time that the roads last without needing maintenance?”

“That’s a great question, and that’s probably something, if someone could figure that out, they, I mean, they’d be set for life,” he shared with a smile.

“It’s a great question,” Koester answered as well.

He had a solution to offer: “We, the county, we’ve kind of adopted, it’s, you know, it’s called pavement preservation.”

The Effingham County Engineer said he and his staff manufactured a way to preserve pavement for a while longer.

“It may be unconventional, but to us, it’s pretty conventional,” he began. “We do it in-house. It’s an oil treatment.”

Koester says some 15- to 20-year-old roads are still looking pretty good as a result. In many places, two decades would be the longest the pavement could hold up.

Although, Effingham County does have an advantage in being a rural county with less-traveled roads.

“You can maintain your roads much more cost-effectively if you keep them from getting into really bad condition,” Cole added.

He said completely rebuilding a road is generally about five times the cost of maintaining it. When you’re talking about millions of dollars, the difference is stark.

“I think of it a lot like painting a house,” Cole explained. “…If you have wood siding or siding that needs to be painted, you can put the siding on there and without any maintenance, it might last, you know, 20, 30 years, something like that. But if you continue to paint it, you know, and seal it out and prevent weather from deteriorating it, you could get 60, 100, 150, 200 years out of that.”

Cole said his team is working on outlining a maintenance plan and schedule for preserving the city’s roads.

Stick with Target 3 for updates on that progress.

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