District that includes Champaign County languishes at bottom of IDOT's priority list for overpasses
CHAMPAIGN — When the Champaign County YMCA moved into its new facility this year in southwest Champaign, there was no doubt that the Windsor Road overpass would be a key transit point for its visitors and employees.
It was just another instance of the city continuing to develop westward, putting more strain on a bridge built about half a century ago to handle rural traffic. But these days, the Windsor Road overpass takes a daily beating from drivers, bicyclists and pedestrians.
Three kinds of road users is a crowd that the bridge can't handle. Most visitors to the YMCA come from that direction, said director Mark Johnson, and it's too tight.
"Everybody wants the same thing," Johnson said. "There's no question that everybody knows it's outdated and dangerous."
It's not just southwest Champaign. In fact, Windsor Road is one of the lucky bridges — the only lucky one, really — that will benefit from a $2.74 million reconstruction project to widen the overpass with bike lanes and sidewalks next year.
But the Kirby and Bradley Avenue overpasses are desperate for upgrades, too, said city engineer Roland White. The same goes for the Staley Road and Mattis Avenue bridges.
"It bothers me, keeps me up at night. I worry about it," White said. "I think it's just a matter of time before somebody gets hurt on one of these bridges."
White has made it a priority to see that those overpasses get upgrades, but it's not going particularly well so far. The bridges are under state jurisdiction, and Champaign County lies in the district that the Illinois Department of Transportation has allocated the fewest dollars-per-mile of roadway.
Over the next five years, the state plans to spend $176 million in District 5, which includes Champaign, Vermilion, Piatt, Douglas, DeWitt, Edgar and McLean counties. That's 1,308 miles of roadway and 672 bridges.
In other words, that's $134,557 per mile or $261,905 per bridge. In both those categories, District 5 ranks the lowest in the state.
"I don't think that's a good place for our district to be," White said.
The funding to District 5 is handed down through the IDOT office in Springfield, said Craig Emberton, the acting programming engineer for District 5. It's a matter of state officials evaluating the condition of roads statewide and determining which districts need what kind of funding.
"It just so happens that, in District 5, our condition is a little better than other districts," Emberton said.
That means less funding from Springfield, and from there, it's the district office's job to determine which projects get to the top of the list. That involves evaluating numerical characteristics, like condition ratings and average daily traffic counts.
Still troubling, White said, is the evaporation of funds specifically for Champaign overpasses during the past few years. A planned project that would have widened the Kirby Avenue bridge became a rehabilitation project to simply redo the pavement. Other bridge projects disappeared entirely from the state's plans.
Funding for Mattis and Bradley avenues was zeroed, but Emberton said they are still on the department's radar.
"They're not in the multi-year plan now, but we're definitely looking at those," Emberton said.
Kirby Avenue is of vital importance to the areas on both sides of Interstate 57, White said. Students from the west are driving, biking and walking to school to Centennial High School on the east, and some residents on the east need to get to and from Countryside School on the west.
Bradley Avenue is becoming a very important and very dangerous overpass for residents in northwest Champaign as the Boulder Ridge and Sawgrass subdivisions continue to develop just west of I-57, White said.
"If I have any legacy here, I'd like to have safe passage for our citizens over the interstate," White said.
Open Road Paving President Joe Lamb said the Kirby Avenue bridge is a "nightmare," and he will tell you it's not only a safety issue, but also an economic one. IDOT is one of the biggest customers for the local construction industry, and less funding means fewer jobs.
Lamb says diversion of user fees — most notably the state's gas tax — is partially responsible. He says hundreds of millions of dollars that should have gone toward roads have gone to other purposes, such as state police, the Department of Healthcare and Family Services and the state's general fund.
What you end up getting, he said, is half-hearted projects like this summer's repaving on a stretch of Interstate 57 just north of Champaign. Crews worked on the southbound lanes, but there was no money to fix northbound lanes.
"For the first time in the state's history, a U.S. interstate was constructed one-half at a time," Lamb said.
Lamb hosted a meeting this month at Open Road Paving headquarters, where leaders of the local construction industry gathered to talk about the state's road budgets and the diminishing funds.
"It's involving labor; it's involving engineering consultants; it's involving local businesses who are going to take a real beating," O'Neil Bros. Vice President John Peisker said at that meeting.
The projected budgets from the state aren't promising, Lamb said.
"You can't live that tenuously from year to year," he said.
It's a regional issue, too.
Urbana Public Works Director Bill Gray sent a letter to IDOT officials, in which he calls attention to a crumbling Cunningham Avenue and Wright Street between University and Springfield avenues. Both stretches are labeled as U.S. 45 and are under state jurisdiction.
He also mentions the I-57 interchange with I-74: "The number of accidents and truck roll-overs at this interchange should qualify it as a very high statewide priority," Gray wrote in the letter.
White said that interchange overhaul was the impetus for a $70 million plan to widen I-74 between Champaign and Mahomet. The rationale, White said, was that to expand the interchange, the interstate needed to be widened. By the time you've gone far enough out from Champaign to widen the interchange, you're almost to Mahomet anyway.
But after overwhelming negative reaction to what was perceived as a needless widening, the project was zapped from the plan.
The IDOT funding plan is still in a draft phase, and White is urging anyone concerned to give input. He hopes IDOT will base the merit of projects not only on the number of potholes in the road, but also look at who is using the roadway.
"That needs to be elevated more than just the condition of the pavement," White said.
Johnson, who uses the Windsor Road overpass often to get to work at the YMCA, said he is hoping for safer passage for drivers, bicyclists and pedestrians.
"It's certainly a challenge," Johnson said. "I think it's dangerous."
As the city develops westward, average daily traffic counts on key Champaign bridges have increased in the past few decades, some more than others. At the same time, more bicyclists and pedestrians have been crossing those bridges, and there's not always room for everyone.
Year Windsor Road Kirby Avenue Bradley Avenue Staley Road (at I-72) Mattis Avenue (at I-57)19811,4503,1502,5502,4503,30019861,6502,9002,8003,2502,90019911,8505,3002,9003,7004,20019963,5507,3002,7504,0504,50020017,0008,4005,1004,4006,20020068,3009,6004,6505,6005,700
SOURCE: Champaign-Urbana Urbanized Area Transportation Study. Average daily traffic counts are observed at the nearest intersection. Data for 2011 has yet to be published.