CHAMPAIGN – City officials are not complaining about having been hit by about 1,300 tons of bricks.
When Champaign public works staff in 1999 bought 292,800 bricks straight out of the ground of an East St. Louis stockyard, they say they were looking to the future of their antique roads.
Eleven years and thousands of bricks later, their coveted pile of vitrified clay is holding out, and it is now valued at maybe three times what they paid for it: 55 cents per brick.
"We've got a pretty good supply of bricks back there," said public works director Dennis Schmidt.
With few remaining brick manufacturers, and cities across the country looking to preserve their own streets, Schmidt said the department gets about half a dozen requests for bricks each year.
But the requests are stonewalled – Champaign would rather sit on its 40- to 50-year supply.
Although it costs about three times more to maintain a brick street than a typical concrete or asphalt street, engineer technician Bill Holland said, the old roads typically last longer. They do not absorb as much moisture as other road materials, and the bricks are tough to crack.
Schmidt said the $200,000 to $240,000 annual maintenance costs are a small price to pay to maintain the integrity of Champaign's older neighborhoods.
"Those streets have got character to them," Schmidt said. "You don't want everything to look like the new subdivision we build on the edge of town."
The brick street preservation area covers a portion of the city just west of State Street, and it takes city council approval to convert a brick street to the more typical asphalt or concrete material.
Urbana has its own stockpile of bricks and its own brick street preservation program, putting the city in a situation much like Champaign's, Urbana public works director Bill Gray said. The brick streets there are at least 50 years old.
"We have brick streets that are decades old that have had little or no maintenance on them," Gray said.
Although Champaign's brick policies have changed through the years, the roads themselves – some of which could be as much as 100 years old – have not.
A couple decades ago, when Dannel McCollum, who lived in the central Champaign neighborhood with brick streets, sat on the city council, the public works director at the time proposed overlaying the brick streets with asphalt, he said.
"I said, 'If you recommend doing this, I'm going to have to come out in strong opposition,'" McCollum said. "Leave the brick streets alone."
Some streets in Champaign have been converted to more conventional materials through the years, but typically only those that see higher traffic. The streets – some designed for horse and buggy – do not always hold up well to trucks and buses, Schmidt said.
And those conversions do not always go over well with residents, said McCollum, who later was elected mayor. Years ago, when work began on Elm Boulevard, phones rang at the City Building.
"We were all called down to the south end of Elm Street to address this serious breach," McCollum said. "The people loved that street."
But the bricks in storage will not last forever. When the pile runs low 40 or 50 years from now, the city will have to look to the open market if it wants to continue preserving its streets.
"There's materials out there to buy, they're just going to cost more," assistant city engineer Dave Clark said.
Officials have made policy changes in the past few years to ensure the longevity of their bricks. Contractors who excavate brick streets now have to replace the bricks they take out instead of shipping them to a landfill and putting in new bricks from the city stockpile.
It is "a lot of handwork" for the contractors, but Schmidt said it ultimately saves money. Disposing of backhoe-destroyed bricks at a landfill can get costly.
Handling the bricks can be a workout, too. At about 9 pounds each, gripping the weight hundreds of times per day can be a test of endurance for contractors, Holland said.
The new policy has reduced the loss of bricks during maintenance projects from 80 percent to about 10 percent, Holland said.
Patching a brick street can be more complicated than it sounds, too. Holland said there are at least five different sizes of bricks in Hill Street alone – all the more reason to try to save the bricks that are already there.
And if you ask McCollum, he'll tell you that the preservation is priceless.
"If you think in terms of time, there is a street that's been there 100 years," McCollum said. "How many things do you see that we build that survive with minimal maintenance for 100 years?"