Tackling Illinois' Crumbling Roads & Bridges One Tour At A Time

Oct 2, 2018
Originally published on September 25, 2018 12:43 pm

Illinois roads and bridges are in major disrepair. But after a two-year budget impasse and a backlog of bills that the state is struggling to cover, infrastructure continues to take a backseat. This year, advocates and lawmakers plan to change that.

One August morning in Athens, about 20 miles north of downtown Springfield, several state legislators gather in a quarry run by Hanson Material Service. A tour organized by the Transportation for Illinois Coalition— a group made up of labor, business and transportation advocates who came together to rally behind a long-term sustainable funding plan— is allowing legislators to evaluate how different sectors in central Illinois are impacted by the state's decaying infrastructure.  

Large machines are working on the rock below.

Shawn Mckinney, the assistant director for the Illinois Association of Aggregate Producers, said the group’s members provide the raw materials for road and bridge construction — and just about any project that needs rock, sand or gravel to make concrete or asphalt trucks. Then the material is transported by truck to anyone needing it for construction. 

“They are drilling into the pit where Hanson Material Service here is mining stone from the ground. It's in its geological formation right now. The process starts with stripping the soil on top of the rock,” McKinney said, “Once the material is moved here from the muck pile into a haul truck and taken back to a processing plant — just later that day it's available for customers to purchase.”

But without the money to invest in the hundreds of bridges and roads needing repair, some trucks are forced to lessen their loads or take a different route,  slowing down the entire process. The state has not had a major construction programs since 2009, so repairs are done more incrementally.

Just a few miles away still in Menard county, one bridge is getting minimal in-house repairs just to keep it open. Many other bridges like this one are in the same condition — or worse. 

Tom Casson is a county highway engineer who joined the transportation tour to explain the condition of the nearby roads and bridges. 

“The structural deficiency on this bridge is the timber piles rotting away and it's not adequate to support the loads. So, if we don't repair it and keep tending to it, IDOT is going to close it and then when they close it, I don't have the money to replace it and reopen it. So, all I can do is keep repairing it,” he said. 

And while the county receives some state money for repairs, Casson said the amount hasn't changed in about 40 years, while the costs for materials and labor have since gone up.

“So it's kind of hard to keep up with the program when there's not enough money out there,” Casson said. 

Earlier this year, a report spearheaded by the American Society of Civil Engineers gave Illinois a C- for the overall quality of its infrastructure. Groups like the Transportation for Illinois Coalition, say if no significant investment is made in the state's transportation funding, almost 40 percent of roads and 20 percent of bridges will be an unacceptable condition in less than four years.

One solution lawmakers and groups are exploring is raising the motor fuel tax, which is paid at the gas pump. The tax of 19 cents per gallon hasn't changed in nearly three decades. Meanwhile, the state is being squeezed by more fuel-efficient vehicles that still cause wear and tear on roads but fill up less often. 

Bordering states like Indiana, Michigan and Iowa raised their gas taxes in the last few years. Some suggest Illinois may need to increase the tax by another 10 or even 15 cents per gallon to meet the state's needs. Other ideas include per mile tax charge based on how much someone drives. 

State Rep. Marcus Evans, a Chicago Democrat who chairs the state's transportation committee, said he sees it as a possibility but said he'd like to make sure taxpayers give feedback on what matters to them first. 

“We’re not looking again to tap folks for another tax. We’re looking to prioritize how to get to that point. But before you get there, you have to come to a conclusion that we must do something to address our roads because the problem is going to cost us more later,” he said. 

The lack of funding is also costing Illinois drivers. An estiimate places the annual figure at about $600 each for extra vehicle repairs and operating costs — just for driving on roads in need of repair. 

State Rep. Margo McDermed of Mokena, the leading Republican on that committee, said it's also important for other lawmakers — regardless of location —  to see the benefits of having a transportation plan.

“And make sure they understand that applies to the whole state. This helps everyone— all 118 rep districts will experience an improvement if we have a transportation capital plan,” she said. 

Both Evans and McDermed aren't from the central Illinois area, but the transportation tour they say, has given them a chance to see firsthand the needs they've only heard about.

“And what we got to do today was to experience what good condition is like, what poor condition is like, and to see it and to feel it,” McDermed said. 

The Transportation for Illinois Coalition also planned a Chicago transportation tour in September, where several of the same lawmakers—including some from the central and southern Illinois areas, were able to look at the infrastructure issues there.  

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