County official says area not getting fair share of road work money

CHAMPAIGN — The chairman of the Champaign County Board says he has proof that East Central Illinois is being short-changed on state road construction money.

Board chairman Alan Kurtz has sent letters about the alleged funding disparity to Illinois Department of Transportation Secretary Ann Schneider, and says that unless he receives an adequate explanation, he'll take his case to area legislators as well.

But Kurtz's campaign for more transportation funding already has prompted a letter to Schneider from three area congressmen.

"The transportation funding needs of this area of the state should not be viewed any less important than any other district. The fact that proposed funding is below others in both overall dollars and per-mile dollars is unacceptable," said the joint letter from Republican U.S. Reps. Rodney Davis, John Shimkus and Aaron Schock.

Two local legislators, Sen. Mike Frerichs, D-Champaign, and Rep. Chad Hays, R-Catlin, say they also are concerned about the funding shortage.

Kurtz began his campaign for funding parity in June with a letter to Schneider, accompanied by a spreadsheet prepared by the Champaign County First committee. It showed that IDOT District 5, which includes Champaign, Vermilion, Piatt, Douglas, DeWitt, Edgar and McLean counties, is to receive far less road and bridge construction money in the next five years than any of the other downstate districts.

District 5 is slated to get $176 million, compared with the next-lowest, $426 million, to District 4 (the Peoria area) and the highest sum, $695 million, going to District 8 in far southern Illinois.

In his June letter, Kurtz asked who at IDOT "makes the decisions on the funding levels, what criteria/formulas are used to make those decisions, how the funding process works and why there seems to be such a large disparity."

The response from Schneider in early July said IDOT calculations are based on a number of factors, including miles of roadway, miles of interstate roadway, congestion, fatalities, population, vehicle registrations, and square footage of bridges. Also part of the formula, she said, are "special circumstances and programs," such as the state's major bridge program.

According to a chart Schneider sent to Kurtz, District 5's weighted ranking was last among the nine districts.

But Kurtz disputes the ranking, contending District 5 should be no lower than seventh. Rather than getting an average of $30 million to $40 million a year for projects, District 5 should receive about $70 million, he told Schneider in a second letter, dated July 31.

"It does seem strange that the difference is so blatant. It just stunned us when we saw the numbers. They're not giving me a response that makes, to me, any common sense," Kurtz said. "We calculated it based on their own criteria. We used their numbers and put a spreadsheet together and found we're not ninth but we're seventh. Why are we so far behind on dollars when it comes to the next closest district?"

He hasn't heard back yet.

IDOT officials declined to comment Friday.

In their letter, the three Republican congressmen raised the possibility that the funding disparity might be politically related. East Central Illinois is known to be among the most Republican areas of the state. In the 2010 election, Gov. Pat Quinn got no better than 39 percent in any of the District 5 counties.

"We must ensure our federal resources are allocated wisely and fairly. It is our hope that this funding disparity is not based on political motives," said the letter from Davis, Shimkus and Schock.

"I don't even want to get into that," Kurtz, a Democrat, said when asked if he thought politics was involved. "It's just about, 'Here are the numbers. Here is the spreadsheet. Tell me why.' Let them tell me why there is such a discrepancy.

"If I don't hear back from them in another week I'm going to start applying more political pressure on them because we need those monies. If I don't hear back from IDOT my only choice is to go to each of those representatives and senators. I'm sure they understand the gravity of not having updated and improved highways."

Hays and Frerichs said they've contacted IDOT about the funding disparity.

"I'm concerned about it and we're looking into it as well," Hays said.

Kurtz said he contacted all other county board chairmen in District 5 before sending his letter to Schneider.

"They all sent me back confirming letters that they were in support of us asking for that information," he said.

An increase in highway funding is important to the area's economic development, Kurtz said.

"There's quite a bit of work that needs to be done, and we're so short compared to the other districts," he said. "And yet we have five major interstates going through this district and they all need upkeep. It's important for economic development and the traffic that comes through central Illinois, the tens of thousands of trucks and other vehicles that use those roads. This money is going to run short."

Both Kurtz and County Engineer Jeff Blue said a number of state-maintained highways need work.

Kurtz cited U.S 45 north of Urbana, U.S. 150 from Urbana to St. Joseph, U.S. 136 from Illinois 47 to the Vermilion County line, Illinois 47 from Mahomet to U.S. 136 and Mattis Avenue through Champaign.

"There are a number of roadways in the county that are in poor condition. I can't hardly think of one that isn't," Blue said. "Honestly, on a heavily traveled route like 150 from Urbana to St. Joe, that's horrible."

I-57/74 interchange on IDOT agenda, but there's no money for it

CHAMPAIGN — There's a major local road project on the Illinois Department of Transportation's agenda, but no funding for it has been identified.

A long-discussed reconfiguration of the Interstate 57-Interstate 74 interchange northwest of Champaign is just entering the design stage, Champaign County Engineer Jeff Blue said Friday.

Local officials got a peek at the project earlier this week, Blue said, from Transportation Department staff from the Paris office. But they noted there is no funding for it.

"It's not in the 5-year plan," Blue said. "This would have to be a project that would be outside the normal funding that District 5 gets from the state. It's so large. District 5 gets about $30 to $40 million a year and this intersection is a $60 million project. It would have to be funded through some other mechanism."

IDOT officials acknowledged a high number of accidents at the interchange, which was designed nearly 50 years ago.

"There are now 16 conflict points there, depending on where cars enter and leave," Blue said. "The new concept is to cut that in half down to eight conflict points. You can do that with stacked bridges like at I-57 and I-70 in Effingham.

"The designs vary from an enlarged cloverleaf to a really complicated design where you have maybe two or three bridges stacked on top of each other."

"It's nice to see that someone is taking a concern with that situation," Champaign County Board Chairman Al Kurtz said. "They're coming in there at 35 mph and we're moving off at 65, so you have people stepping on their brakes, with people then rear-ending them. You have trucks that turn over and it becomes a real mess. It's one of the most accident-prone areas in the state."

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