Doing the math on road repairs

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."

New strategies

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.

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ROB McCOLLEY wrote on September 16, 2012 at 11:09 am
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Switch the 1% retail sales tax from school construction to road construction. Champaign got its new BT Washington, and Urbana couldn't possibly use another FieldTurf® stadium.

Sid Saltfork wrote on September 16, 2012 at 3:09 pm

Why not just raise taxes?

illini_trucker wrote on September 16, 2012 at 10:09 pm

Not sure about raising taxes yada yada because the citizen wants to see an actual RETURN for their community investment and we won't talk about porking and misappropriating funds.. But please consider MARKET STREET!!! I see the project was started. It's too horrible at this point to just "patch up." if/when your car gets stuck in the 5 mile long rut and your trying to sue the City for vehicle suspension repair compensation along with injuries received while traversing the crappy road!

dw wrote on September 17, 2012 at 12:09 am

<blockquote>Sometimes it seems like Champaign-Urbana officials have more miles of roads than dollars to fix them.</blockquote>

This is an actual fact nationwide.  It is not an exaggeration as long as you don't assume that $1 = 1 mile of road.  We have significantly more roads in this country than we can afford to keep repaired.

As a bicyclist and a driver of lightweight electric vehicles, I *need* nice smooth pot-hole (and repaired pot-hole) free roads for comfort and maximum efficiency.  But I often hear people grumble at bicyclists (and plug-in vehicle drivers) "Hey, you don't buy gas, so you don't pay the road repair/maintenance taxes"  Which is true.  So I asked the question that it seems no one in C-U is asking: How much road damage does a bicycle or motorcycle or even a car cause?  The answer turns out to be heavy.  Very heavy.

What causes road wear?
The common knowledge is that it's freeze-thaw cycles, but we've sidewalks and sections of old roads that have survived since the 1930's and earlier (brick roads).  If you Google "What causes road wear" one of the top hit returned is a PDF titled "Understanding Road Wear and its Causes" by Professor Phillip A. Viton, Co-Director of the Joint Program in Urban Transportation at The Ohio State Univeristy.  And it turns out that the major variable factor (ie, non-constant like freeze-thaw cycles that we can control) is vehicular weight and how many axles supporting that weight (more is better).  The engineers have a unit of damage called the ESAL:  Equivalent Single Axle Load.   In his PDF, Professor Viton scales the ESAL such that a typical private passenger vehicle (i.e. Car, MiniVan, SUV) gets an ESAL of 1, and it goes up from there.

Slide #14 in Professor Viton's presentation makes it plain to see that the city buses are causing most of the damage to our roads:  each mile that a city bus (and they drive a lot of 'em over the same roads) does 851 times more damage than a car.  To be fair, concrete trucks and semi trucks do their share of damage too, but they have apportioned license plate fees that are supposed to pay for their damage AND they pay the road-repair gas taxes.  But like most Mass Transit Districts, the CU-MTD as a municipal agency does NOT pay the gas/road-repair tax.  

What happens as gas prices rise?
Bicycling increases as does mass transit ridership.  Private vehicle owners transition to higher MPG and zero/near-zero MPG (plug-in) vehicles.  And buy less and less gas.  A great thing for national security and reducing our US$1 billion a day oil addiction, but a very bad thing for how we fund our road repairs:  there's less sheeple paying into the bus pothole repair fund.  The coffers based on the gas tax will continue to dry up at the same time as we increase the mileage of some of the highest ESAL vehicles (busses) increases.  Making roads rougher and harder to travel by non heavyweight vehicles (usually very high MPG) such as bicycles, motorcycles and plug-in vehicles.

Oh, another MTD hater I see?
Absolutely not!  I love mass transit, and I take it every opportunity I get in other cities:  but I don't use their bus systems.  The El, rickety as it may be is both faster and more pleasant and easier to use than the Chicago Transit Authorities' bus system.  The Metro in DC is awesome.  You'll never spill your morning latte on the smooth Dallas Dart.  I *love* our MTD Bus drivers -- the relatively few times I've taken the bus I've found them to be the friendliest and most courteous public works people, let alone bus drivers (and I realize that in our campus college town that driving is an extremely difficult job - which is why I bike ;-).  Bill Volk is a very progressive transit director:  under his stewardship the MTD has invested heavily into hybrid busses to double the fuel efficiency of their fleet (4-6 MPG to 8-12 MPG), and the CU MTD tried their best in 2003 to bring an electric rail tram to C-U and was shocked as they almost got ridden out on that rail.  Had it been built, due to both cities electrical aggregation it could've been 100% renewably powered mass transit.  Bill Volk of the MTD has also spoken in favor of roundabouts, which are the right move for our city but again a very tough political sell (they will save gas, time and most importantly lives).  So let's make it absolutely clear:  I hate buses, not the MTD or their directors or employees.  But make no mistake that I hate buses with a fervor only surpassed by my hatred of stop signs and stop lights.

The solution to saving the roads without breaking the bank?
Get the busses off the roads by investing in our future:  give them their own dedicated "roads" called rails.  Heavyweight vehicles travel best on steel wheels on steel rails.  Lightweight (electric) passenger rail.  At least on the high frequency routes, such as campus and downtown. Is it a huge investment?  You bet.  But one way or another you're either gonna spend the money anyway -- on road repair or invest in keeping our roads longer by putting our mass transit on rail.  

My (and your) fair share
As a bicyclist and lightweight plug-in vehicle driver, I *need* good roads.  So I'm more than willing to pay my fair share.  But what is that?  Unfortunately after you examine what causes the damage it turns out that a bicyclists "fair share" of road repair is insignificant (if a bus does 850 times more damage than a car, and a bicycle is 160 times less massive than a car... it's not even worth it to do the math -- especially since it's not a linear relationship).  Most motorcyclists' and average passenger car's fair share is also insignificant: all the passenger cars are also overpaying your fair share to support heavy vehicles on our roads.

The Future
Currently we-the-sheeple are taxed once for the bus service, then again for supporting the military to assure access to cheap oil that powers the busses, then again to repair the road damage they do.  But you cannot simply get rid of the busses without a replacement as the traffic congestion in town would skyrocket:  We urgently need light electric rail in C-U as well as at the State level a sensible and fair gas tax based on miles traveled each year times a multiplier based on the vehicle's ESAL (such as they use in the first world countries) in order to save our roads and be able to economically keep them in good repair.  We have a choice:  we can invest in our future and plan for the financial and health well being of our decendants, or we can damn them to continue down this slow Highway to Hell...

ROB McCOLLEY wrote on September 17, 2012 at 12:09 am
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I'm pretty sure that's the best comment (and possibly the best contribution of any kind) that I've ever read at N-G dot commerce.


Change "less" to "fewer" and remove the extra S from "busses", and it becomes the best thing I've read ever, anywhere.








(That last bit might be hyperbole, but I like the comment.)

pattsi wrote on September 17, 2012 at 8:09 am

Nary a word in the long piece by DW about sprawl. Most of these roads that need loving care are the result of the sprawl that has been allowed throughout the county. Did not the citizens take note of the two studies paid for by the city of Champaign indicating rather clearly that sprawl costs, does not pay for itself, and does not generate the dreamed for tax dollars to pay for the major aspects connected with sprawl--infrastructure both below the surface and on the surface?

And right now another road is being built--4th street and an article in today's N-G headlines that Champaign is going after grant money to repair the concrete on Windsor. These take a lot of dollars, let alone the acres of farm land lost to the 4th street project.

Sid Saltfork wrote on September 17, 2012 at 7:09 pm

Let's all walk.  It requires a little more time; but it is beneficial.  The next best would be manual powered transportation.  Something like China at the turn of the century.  It would make it tough delivering beer, and heavy goods though.  Trolley service would be good; but not practical for the entire community.  Horse power would do except for the horse manure; but it would appear that there is plenty of it around without the horses. 

How about reducing the spending on the wants, and use the money on the needs?