Tom Kacich: Dobbins, Western Hills streets on the road to ruin
There are nearly 7,000 units of local government in Illinois but apparently not one of them can do anything to repair the shoddy streets in the Dobbins Downs and Western Hills subdivisions northwest of Champaign.
The streets aren't in the city of Champaign. They're not county streets. The township doesn't have the money to repair them. The MTD isn't responsible for roads. Whoever built the streets 50 or so years ago — and apparently there were several separate developers — is long gone. The state, well, everyone knows how bad-off the state is.
"You've got a subdivision in what is pretty much a rural township, which has a rural tax base. And you've got a subdivision with roads that were probably inadequately built when they were built and you've got a lot of heavy loads coming through there, buses, garbage trucks, everything," said Jeff Blue, Champaign County's highway engineer. "Back when there wasn't any planning, people just built these things the way they wanted to. And now it's all coming back to roost and it's roosting in Hensley Township."
Edgar McKnight has lived on Aztec Drive — technically in Western Hills although the lines get blurred in an area that encompasses three townships and one city government — since 1970 and he's unhappy about the street conditions, particularly parts of Roland Drive.
"They've only done one thing. They put in a slab. That's the only thing they did. When you come across it the mud would come up because the patch broke. They put some tar and stuff down there and that's all they ever do," said McKnight.
"What I want to do is get all of us here and see how much we pay in taxes and see how much it would cost to do this street and go to the county clerk and see if I could collect all that money and give it to the township," he said.
It's not that easy, of course.
Kelly Dillard, who has been the Hensley Township supervisor for two years, estimates that the township gets between $100,000 and $125,000 a year from its road and bridge fund, which is supposed to cover the cost of maintaining about 50 miles of township roads.
It's been estimated that repairing Roland Drive alone would cost $300,000, according to Blue, and fixing all the flawed streets in the two subdivisions would cost $1 million.
"It would take three years in our road budget to just fix that one road," Dillard said. "We're frustrated because the state and the federal government from time to time have money for this stuff, particularly the state, but the state is putting out millions and millions of dollars annually to build bike paths but they can't help us fix the roads that need to be fixed."
Most of the people who live in the subdivisions are of modest means and many of them use the MTD to shop and to get to work. But the 4-inch concrete streets are no match for the MTD buses.
"Those roads were built for 3- or 4,000-pound cars," said Dillard. "Now we've got 80,000-pound buses driving on them, 20 or 30 buses a day (actually 21 northbound and 23 southbound every day, said the MTD) and that's really torn the road up. But the people in that neighborhood really need that bus service so we're not in any kind of mood to say to them that they can't run buses on our roads."
At one time, said Bob Sherman, the Hensley Township road commissioner, there was hope that former U.S. Rep. Tim Johnson of Urbana could get a congressional earmark for a street repair project.
"Our good chance was 10 years ago when we got an earmark. Of course those were thrown out by the Republicans and the Democrats too," Sherman said.
"It's not like we've been sitting on our thumbs and not doing nothing. We've been trying," he said.
Hensley Township used to include large areas of mostly rural Champaign County on the north side of Interstate 74. But as development sprouted, the city of Champaign annexed it — Market Place Shopping Center, the commercial development along North Prospect Avenue, the Baytowne Apartments, car dealerships and more.
It's millions and millions of dollars of tax base lost to the township, leaving it with little to pay for streets.
"So the city's collecting millions in taxes while we're sitting here with a problem that we can't fix for a few hundred thousand," said Dillard. "The annexation law is basically that if a city wants a piece of a township they can take up to 10 percent per year and there's nothing we can do about it.
"What's going to happen is that somehow sooner or later these roads are going to get fixed and after that happens the city will annex them and we won't have them either."
That sounds a little optimistic to me.
"We've been trying to get money from the county, state, whatever, to do it for years," said Sherman. "I know that it's bad but it's better than some of the five miles of gravel road that I have.
"We've had a lot of town meetings about this, but right now there doesn't seem to be anything we can do."
Blue, who had a similar opinion, said the Dobbins Downs/Western Hills predicament "is not real common."
He thinks the only sources of funding would be an increase in the township's road fund tax rate "or some special grant that he might be able to get somehow. But there's nothing out there that would be in a typical type of state application to get money for a subdivision. There just isn't. It's not out there.
"I know that Bob (Sherman) has been beating the bushes with the senators and representatives, trying to find some answers to this situation he's in. And he's asked me and I literally don't have any answers for him either. It's a very unfortunate situation that he's been put into."
Tom Kacich is a News-Gazette editor and columnist. His column appears on Sundays and Wednesdays. He can be reached at 351-5221 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.