April 4, 2014

Gov’t Watch: Rough winter tough on area roadways and city budgets

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City of Champaign public works employee Chad Haney fills a pothole on Mattis Avenue in Champaign on Tuesday, April 1, 2014. photo by Darrell Hoemann/CU Citizen's Access

Darrell Hoemann/CU-CitizenAccess.org

City of Champaign public works employee Chad Haney fills a pothole on Mattis Avenue in Champaign on Tuesday, April 1, 2014. photo by Darrell Hoemann/CU Citizen's Access

Sari Lesk/For CU-CitizenAccess.org — After about twice the average snowfall hit Central Illinois this winter, local government bodies are increasing their budgets to address needs for road repairs.

Champaign-Urbana experiences an average of 23.2 inches of annual snowfall, according to the Illinois State Water Survey. This year, that figure nearly doubled to more than 40 inches.

For the city of Champaign, the increase in snowfall has brought an uptick in the number of potholes needing to be filled, along with a need for additional manpower and adjustments to the city’s budget. Officials are moving money from other projects where the city has seen savings.

Kris Koester, the public information officer for the city of Champaign’s public works department, said the city has used up to triple the number of crews working on pothole repair than it has during past winters, and those crews have already used 150 tons of material for pothole repair.

The department has 150 tons of material on hand for the remainder of the season, which ends May 15, Koester said. One ton of material fills approximately 80 to 90 potholes.

“We’re just finishing up a budget refresh, which we do every year mid-year, and so any additional money that we’ve needed, we’ve been able to move around,” Koester said.

The city budgeted about $460,000 to put toward emergency operations, but the department has so far spent more than $790,000 on snow removal.

In Urbana, this year’s winter has already cost the city about $100,000 more than the $150,000 budgeted for snow removal.

The public works department is responsible for more than 700 lane miles of street in Champaign. Koester does not yet know how many potholes have had to be filled this year, but he said his department filled more than 21,000 in the 2013 fiscal year, ending June 30. He did not yet have budget estimates.

“It’s been a consistent need for us to address resources to that this winter,” he said.

The city of Urbana has seen a similar increase as the city of Champaign. Bill Gray, director of public works for the city of Urbana, said in an email interview that this winter has been “dramatically different” for his department.

“There has been almost non-stop snow and ice related work these past four months,” he said.

In addition to patching potholes in the winter, the public works department in Urbana is also responsible for clearing public parking lots downtown and sidewalks adjacent to public property. Gray said his department asks that motorists use caution and slow down when street crews are performing repairs.

Similar to the sister cities, the county was faced with an increased need for road repairs before its busiest time of year – the spring.

Tracy Wingler, the maintenance supervisor for the Champaign County Highway Department, said his department has already filled 2 to 3 times more potholes this year than it has in past winters. The department operates on a budget of about $4.4 million and is responsible for about 200 miles of highway. Unlike the city of Champaign, however, the county has not yet had to adjust the budget. He said adjustments might have to be made depending on how the rest of the season plays out.

Wingler said his department has not yet determined how much money it has spent on road repairs so far this winter, as it will still be in snow removal mode until around April.

“This winter has been really severe on our department for overtime cost, for salt usage and wear and tear on our highways,” he said.

Gary Maxwell, a Champaign County board member who represents the first district as a republican, worked for 26 years as a highway engineer. To the county board, he brings experience managing crews to handle snow removal and road repair.

“Snow removal and snow efforts are very costly,” Maxwell said. “Somebody told me one time that water is the universal solvent, and basically it’s out dissolving the roads right now.

“Water is in the roads now and will continue to cause damage even into the spring and summer,” he added. “There’ll be a lot of road repairs needed as a result of this severe winter.”

As for the county’s budget, Maxwell said the board addressed the need for additional money in highway budget when it was preparing this year’s county budget. However, he noted that fixing roads would likely need to be done at levels of government beyond the county board.

“I think the problems with the roads are going to have to be addressed not only at the federal level, but at the state level, as well as at the local level,” he said. “Whether or not the lawmakers at the state and federal levels will do that or not, we are beginning to need a major reconstruction of many of our roads.”

Despite the need for additional road repairs this winter, Maxwell said he’s heard very little from his constituents about the county roads. He said he rarely hears from the constituents unless they have a specific problem to address.

“Potholes (are) not something that they’re concerned about, that they call me about,” he said.

CU-CitizenAccess.org has begun a new initiative on providing more information on government agencies and issues. Known as Government Watch, the project is an effort by faculty and students in the Journalism Department at the University of Illinois to provide more news and information about public and nonprofit agencies. Please send suggestions on coverage of those agencies to hello@cu-citizenaccess.org.