Doing the math on road repairs
CHAMPAIGN — Sometimes it seems like Champaign-Urbana officials have more miles of roads than dollars to fix them.
That's a bit of an exaggeration — there are millions of dollars and hundreds of miles of roads. But local streets have been deteriorating, officials say, and there is never enough money to do all the projects they need to do.
The most recent estimates put the net value of Champaign's pavement at $165 million. Compare that against the estimated replacement cost for all the city's pavement — $320 million — and drivers can start to see what the damage is.
And with the cost of materials rising and funds for road projects flat-lining, Urbana senior civil engineer Craig Shonkwiler said city officials have to start making some tough decisions.
"There's not enough money to go around and completely replace the worst roads," Shonkwiler said.
So that makes the strategies they use to figure out which projects make the cut — and which don't — all the more important.
Scoring the streets
It starts as a fairly exact science. Both cities use different rating systems, but the concept is the same. Streets are scored based on surface conditions, structural integrity and overall functionality.
The higher the number, the better the street. In Champaign, which scores its streets on a scale from 1 to 100, if a street drops below a score of 35, it ends up on the watch list.
The same goes for Urbana. Roads with the lowest scores shoot to the top of the list.
If only it were that easy, though. A low score does not always mean that street gets first priority.
An extreme example is a segment of Windsor Road between Race Street and Philo Road. Its score of 15 is tied with two other segments for the worst street in Urbana, but it has yet to make the project list.
"We're going to milk that pavement as long as we can until we decide what we're going to do," Shonkwiler said.
That segment of Windsor Road has fallen into such a state of disrepair that it likely needs a total reconstruction. Basically, the damage is done.
Rebuilding a road from scratch is incredibly expensive, so city officials are waiting.
"That's a multimillion-dollar issue," Shonkwiler said. "We just don't have the money for that."
Maybe a grant will come along.
What makes the cut
As proven by Windsor Road, the quantitative score doesn't count for everything when city officials are trying to decide how to allocate limited dollars toward road maintenance.
Champaign officials had a given amount of money to pay for maintenance on a group of residential streets this year. Seaton Drive was a top concern, said civil engineer Chris Sokolowski — it scored very low and city officials were receiving calls from citizens about the unlevel pavement, and even concerns about crossing the street.
"The first street you pick is one you really know needs to be addressed," Sokolowski said.
But even after one, the funds start dwindling. Stratford Drive was in bad shape, too, so it made the list.
"After we put Seaton and Stratford as two that really needed to be done, there was only a little bit of money left," Sokolowski said. But he knows that picking a relatively close street can make it cheaper as crews can begin to share manpower and equipment.
So Mendota Drive, just off of Peach Street, made the list for repairs. Maybe it was not the lowest scoring street, but it needed work and fit into the budget.
Those three projects will cost the city $400,000, and they would not have happened last year. They are being paid for with funds from the new 4-cent gas tax, which went into effect this May.
In Urbana, Race Street between Washington Street and Michigan Avenue is a bad street — it scored a 17 on Urbana's scale. Couple that with the fact that it lies adjacent to Urbana High School, and some city officials will tell you it is the most important road maintenance project they'll do next year.
Other factors may play a role, too. Next year, workers will resurface a section of Washington Street between Philo Road and Dodson Drive.
They'll be adding bike lanes, too. That segment of road is on the city's bicycle master plan, a document officials use to guide them in their consideration of bike routes and bike facilities as they make decisions about streets throughout the city.
All else being equal, the street that needs bike lanes will get priority over the street that doesn't, Shonkwiler said.
And then there are more unusual situations, like the upgrades currently under way on Philo Road south of Windsor Road. The city has developed farther south throughout the years, and more homes and businesses mean more traffic.
That segment of Philo Road was "basically an old farm road, and it got tired," Shonkwiler said. "It was beyond its useful life there. Our operations crews were having to go out several times a year and spread temporary measures and do patching or things like that."
Despite their best efforts, the pavement in both cities has gotten a little worse during the past 10 to 15 years.
But they're both enacting strategies to help bring it back. Both city councils approved 4-cent gas taxes within the past year, and the fuel surcharge is expected to provide hundreds of thousands of dollars annually in additional funding for road maintenance.
Shonkwiler said Urbana is going to shift to a pavement preservation-focused approach. Instead of trying to overhaul the worst, most expensive roads, city officials will concentrate on maintaining and extending the usable life of younger roads.
They'll still do the very worst roads, Shonkwiler said, but over the long run, the younger, better-looking roads should start to last longer and save the city money.
"That's the model most engineers are moving toward now," Shonkwiler said. "Basically greater bang for the buck."
The same goes for Champaign. If you can catch a road before it needs an expensive reconstruction, Sokolowski said, then you could be in better shape.
"Over time, by patching more streets, we should see overall improvement," he said.