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How bad are the streets of Champaign and Urbana? Pavement data detail poor quality and need for extensive repairs

Andrew Prozorovsky / For CU-CitizenAccess and Dylan Tiger

It’s not rare to find postings on social media sites in Champaign and Urbana about potholes or crumbling roads causing damage to cars — or just general observations about the shoddy shape so many streets are in.

In fact, those anecdotes are backed up by data the cities release every four to five years.

In the City of Champaign, nearly 1 in 5 road segments received a condition rating of very poor, serious or failed in 2020 — and in Urbana, it is 1 in 4 road segments. 

Every four years, the Public Works Departments of the cities of Champaign and Urbana compile a database of the present and predicted pavement conditions for all of their roads, a report which is called the Pavement Condition Index, or PCI. These roads also include state-owned roads, so not all segments are under the jurisdiction of either city.

CU-CitizenAccess received the 2020 PCI data for Champaign and Urbana via a Freedom of Information Act request, including Urbana’s data on its brick roads, which it keeps separately.

Champaign delivered data on the conditions of 3,043 road segments. The average section area of a road segment was 15,765 square feet.

Of those 3,043 road segments, none of them had their condition improved compared to the previous year’s database. 818 road segments had an unchanged condition, and the remaining 2,225 had a worse condition, meaning about 73% of road segments worsened. 

In contrast, Urbana provided data on 933 road segments. The average section area of a road segment was 24,670 square feet.

Chris Sokolowski, assistant city engineer for the Champaign Public Works Department, said that COVID-19 may have caused some logistical challenges, but that the annual planned projects had all been completed without any major disruptions.

Typical C-U road segments are fair or poor, data shows

Road conditions are ranked from 1, the worst condition, to 100, the best condition. They are sorted into seven categories based on their score: good, satisfactory, fair, poor, very poor, serious and failed.

A sample pavement condition index grading scale. Source: ResearchGate

According to the Champaign data, 948 road segments qualified as good, 546 qualified as satisfactory, 525 as fair, 429 as poor, 351 as very poor, 131 as serious, and 113 received a rating of failed.

Based on predicted condition scores, it is estimated that 642 road segments will qualify as good, a decrease of about 33%. 730 will qualify as satisfactory, an increase of 33%. Fair, poor and very poor conditions were slightly adjusted,  but 227 will qualify as serious and 141 road segments will be rated as failed, both increases.

According to the Urbana data, 94 road segments qualified as good, 186 qualified as satisfactory, 182 as fair, 192 as poor, 174 as very poor, 75 as serious, and 7 received a rating of failed.

Based on predicted condition scores, it is estimated that 70 road segments will qualify as good and 161 will qualify as satisfactory, both decreases. 199 will be fair, a slight increase. Poor and very poor segments are predicted to be slightly adjusted, but  99 will qualify as serious, and 11 road segments will be rated as failed, both increases.

For Champaign, the average PCI based on the most recent inspection was 66.22, which falls into the “fair” category. The expected average PCI change is -5.11, therefore the average predicted 2021 PCI is 61.11, which also falls into the “fair” category.

For Urbana, the average PCI based on the most recent inspection was 56, which falls into the “fair” category. The expected average PCI change is -3, therefore the average predicted 2021 PCI is 53, which falls into the “poor” category.

Urbana’s brick roads had an average PCI of 60 (fair). The highest PCI was 90, while the lowest was 19.

John Zeman, the city engineer for the Urbana Public Works Department, said there are no major improvements to any of the brick roads in the 5-year plan ahead, but that they do get maintenance.

Cities’ engineers describe road standards, funding

Chris Sokolowski A screenshot of the campus area near Scott Park with road segments colored by their pavement condition index grade. Compiled by Chris Sokolowski.

Champaign’s Sokolowski said that the industry standard on average is a score of roughly 70. 

“I don’t know if I could tell you the difference between a PCI of 66 and 70,” he said.

Still, Sokolowski described the system as “treading water” for the last five years and described issues with funding. He said he’s more optimistic about the upcoming years, however. 

In years past, Champaign collected data every two to three years. Sokolowski said the city settled on an agreement for two four-year inspection cycles in a 2020 request for letters of interest for professional engineering services for pavement management. CU-CitizenAccess reported on the previous database in 2016.

One-third of the recently implemented motor fuel tax has been allocated to fix streets with low PCI scores (0-25). Sokolowski said this demonstrates an understanding by city council to spend more money on street repair. 

“We’re not caught up yet,” Sokolowski said regarding those projects.

The streets that failed their last inspection are generally local streets or secondary routes. Fixes are made to them where most needed, but Sokolowski notes that most of these roads are just older and the funding cycle for them is once every few decades.

Sokolowski said a goal of Public Works is to have a visual of street conditions on the city’s website, which would require more work than there is time at the moment — especially given that the data is always being updated and the system is always changing.

Urbana’s Zeman spoke candidly about road conditions in Urbana and funding hurdles. He described Urbana roads as “poor” and the consequence of “deferred maintenance” over the years. 

“We are not content with the state of our roads,” Zeman said. “There’s a real funding gap that we’re not trying to hide.”

Funding was not the only issue facing Urbana Public Works. Zeman said the construction cost index rose 21% in one year — a large hindrance to normal reconstruction. 

Champaign Communications Manager Jeff Hamilton spoke with CU-CitizenAccess about the city’s funding sources for infrastructure. 

“Funding for road construction comes from multiple sources,” he said. “The city has allocated money from the motor fuel tax fund and receives federal grants for larger projects.”

Hamilton pointed to a number of reconstruction examples, including projects in the city’s proposed Capital Improvements Plan (CIP) and the recently completed MCORE project.

“Just like a homeowner, road repair needs to be planned ahead for,” Hamilton said. “We have needs, but there’s only so many dollars that can go so far. The CIP helps determine where those dollars should go and where they are needed.”

Up to ten years of reconstruction can be financially planned for under the CIP, and it can be adjusted annually based on priorities and damage beyond what was predicted with the data.

Champaign’s motor fuel tax currently earmarks 4 cents per gallon towards road construction, and the city receives a portion of the state motor fuel tax based on population. Various other taxes that also contribute include portions of the food and beverage tax, the hotel and motel tax, and property taxes.

“The Public Works department does a fantastic job using the funds [to elongate the lifetime] of these roads,” Hamilton said. 

The current agreement with Public Works has the streets evaluated and graded every four years and uses the data to “guide future decisions” on what roads need to be repaired, he added. By evaluating, the city can see which ones need attention and which ones are beyond repair.

Additionally, Sokolowski said the reconstruction on bus routes this summer mostly used funds from the state’s Rebuild Illinois initiative.

Furthermore, Hamilton also corrected a common misconception:

“Not all parts of the town are annexed by the city itself. The city owns and maintains 626 lane miles of roadway that is maintained, plowed and taken care of. State routes and highways — South Neil, North Prospect — are not always connected to the same jurisdictions as nearby streets.”

Chris Sokolowski A screenshot of the I-74 area near Market Place mall and North Prospect businesses with road segments colored by their pavement condition index grade. Compiled by Chris Sokolowski.

He said some neighborhoods are on the outlying edges of the city, so they were never annexed. Typically, a township is responsible for these roads, but different bodies have different responsibilities based on status. He said part of that is because of taxes, but it also impacts other city services like yard waste collection, the fire department and other services.

The city does maintain a map of street jurisdictions on its website.

Zeman said Urbana’s Capital Improvement Plan was finally budgeting the amount of money that their models indicated they should be spending on infrastructure. Moreover, he said the city was pursuing a number of grants, with a goal to reconstruct 1.3 miles of Florida Avenue, and the city was working on bettering its asset management.

The Urbana Mayor’s Office did not return multiple requests for comment.

Frequent heavy vehicle operation naturally lowers rating

Because bus routes usually reflect main roads where many people are transported every day, it is no surprise 722 of Champaign’s road segments and 233 of Urbana’s road segments belonged to a bus route.

The average PCI for a bus route segment in Champaign and Urbana is 62 and 58 respectively. The average predicted PCI for a bus route segment in Champaign and Urbana is 57 and 56 respectively. All of these PCI ratings are considered “fair.”

On bus routes, Sokolowski said, “obviously, the bus routes are more likely to have a lower PCI rating because more heavy vehicles regularly operate on them.” He explained that passenger vehicles have little impact on road degradation, and said degradation occurs by weather and heavy vehicles, like buses, garbage trucks and commercial trucks.

Given this, the city had once considered whether multiple waste hauler companies were necessary. According to Hamilton, typically waste management is a city service, but Champaign uses multiple private, licensed haulers. In April 2018, the city council deliberated and decided against a zone-based pickup based on resident concerns.

However, this means a single neighborhood street may have five different pick-up dates from five different licensed haulers, as opposed to the proposed one pick-up date based on zoning.

Most, but not all the logged road segments have dates recording the last road construction and road inspection. Roughly 96% of Champaign observations had these dates and 97% of Urbana observations. But of those observations, the average last inspection date in Champaign was 04/17/2018, while the average last inspection date in Urbana was 12/07/2016.

In Champaign, the average last construction date was 02/16/1999. In Urbana, the average last construction date was 09/09/1985.

North Chestnut Street, a small road off of Bradley Avenue that turns into a dead-end failed its last road inspection. It is Champaign’s street with the oldest last construction date: 10/01/1960. Champaign’s newest last construction date was 10/01/2020 — eleven road segments were fixed.

In comparison, Urbana’s newest last construction date was 09/01/2020, while the oldest last construction date appeared to be 12/31/1922. Urbana’s youngest road is just 1 year old, while its oldest road is over 122 years old.

Residents seem to have noticed road conditions. A recent News-Gazette Letter to the Editor is simply titled “Local streets are appalling.” The individual condemns Urbana’s pothole patchwork and specifically criticizes the lack of plans for repaving Neil Street. 

Andrew Prozorovsky / For CU-CitizenAccess

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