Local gas taxes bring repairs to roads
CHAMPAIGN — Nearly two years have passed since drivers in Champaign and Urbana started paying a 4-cent gas tax for road maintenance, and the two cities are now ramping up street maintenance with hundreds of thousands of dollars of new revenue.
So what have drivers gotten in return for their four extra cents per gallon?
In Champaign, it'll be a safer bridge. Starting Tuesday, the Windsor Road bridge over Interstate 57 will close while workers widen the road and add bicycle lanes and sidewalks. The project aims to match the road on either side of the overpass with the bridge overhaul the Illinois Department of Transportation completed last year.
Windsor Road is scheduled to reopen in mid-August. Until then, drivers will have to use the Kirby Avenue or Curtis Road bridges to get over the interstate.
It is the first large-scale road project to be paid for with local gas tax money since the 4-cent per gallon surcharge went into effect in 2012, and one that likely would not have happened without the money. The city is chipping in $816,836 — all gas tax money — to supplement the state's $1.74 million portion.
Without the money, the Windsor Road bridge would have looked a lot like the Kirby Avenue overpass, said Champaign Mayor Don Gerard — dangerously narrow for bicyclists and pedestrians.
"It's very important for people who live in southwest Champaign and people who are going over the bridge to the YMCA," Gerard said. "IDOT was not going to pay for those approaches."
The 2013 construction season was the first year the money was available in Champaign. In addition to the Windsor Road bridge project, city officials have focused on residential streets: The money went toward the reconstruction of Stratford Drive just south of Kirby, and a rebuild of Seaton Court last year. This year, it will pay for the reconstruction of Phillips Drive.
Gerard said that's particularly important after a brutal winter that wreaked havoc on streets.
"Right now, ask anybody, and the thing they're most happy about is when the streets are not just patched but to have them resurfaced or replaced," Gerard said.
So how about Urbana? That city's gas tax was introduced at 2 cents per gallon in 2010 and jumped to 4 cents to match Champaign's in 2012. Instead of focusing largely on one big project like Champaign officials have chosen to do, Urbana has finished dozens of smaller projects and is looking do so again this year.
Here's a list of the city's road projects from 2011 to this year.
In 2012, when Urbana had the smaller amount of gas tax money, city officials resurfaced 32 road segments all over town in projects ranging from just a few hundred feet up to almost a half-mile. In total, the city rehabilitated more than 34,000 feet of road that year.
Last year, the city did far fewer projects but more substantial road resurfacing on Main Street, Race Street and Broadway Avenue in and around the downtown area. The Race and Broadway projects included new bike lanes.
If the Urbana City Council approves of the plan in April, portions of Washington Street, Broadway Avenue, Illinois Street, Coler Avenue and Busey Avenue will be slated for substantial resurfacing this summer. Broadway Avenue could get bike lanes as part of that project.
That's $1.275 million worth of projects this year alone that would not have happened so quickly without the gas tax money. Another $260,000 will go toward pavement preservation projects in locations yet to be determined.
Urbana Assistant City Engineer Craig Shonkwiler said preservation is important because roads deteriorate at an accelerating pace — let them get too bad, and they'll fall apart in no time.
"You want to maintain it in the proper fashion," Shonkwiler said. "When it shows signs of deterioration, you want to reset that curve and get it back to like new again."
If you don't catch them quickly enough, you have to rebuild the road from scratch — a project that is four or five times more expensive than fixing what's already there, he said. Before the city had the gas tax money, there wasn't a whole lot of funding for that kind of maintenance.
That being said, the local 4-cent gas tax isn't a cure-all. It supplements the portion the city gets from the state's 19-cent gas tax.
"We're struggling, even with the local motor fuel tax to keep up," Shonkwiler said. "There's just not enough funding across the board, starting with the state motor fuel tax, to properly maintain and keep up with the maintenance."
Urbana received $995,000 from the state tax during the last fiscal year and collected $714,000 from the local tax. The local gas surcharge makes a good dent, Shonkwiler said, but both revenue streams for roads likely will drop off in coming years as the cost of road projects continues to rise.
That's because gas is getting more expensive and cars are getting more fuel-efficient. The tax is a per-gallon charge, and people are simply buying fewer gallons of gas.
Still, Shonkwiler said city officials have no plans to ask the city council to raise the gas tax in the near future.
Gerard said he has not seen any evidence to support initial worries that the gas tax would force people out of town to buy their gas or businesses to shut down.
"To the contrary," Gerard said. "I see that if you go to Savoy, gas is about the same, only you aren't paying the tax to fix the road."
He added that a lot of out-of-towners buy gas when they come to Champaign — it's nice to have them kick in, he said.
"Nobody likes taxes, but everybody likes to get their roads fixed," Gerard said.