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NOV 7, 2011 — COSTLY ROADS

DEAD END: PAYING A BIG TAB FOR A

FEW HIGHWAY MILES

By Robert Reed

The price for maintaining a smattering of roads in unincorporated suburban Cook County is sky-high, when compared to other nearby counties. Critics ask: "Why is this allowed?"

David Hamilton, a township expert and former chair of the Department of Political Science and Public Administration at Roosevelt University, wrote an in-depth analysis on Illinois townships in April 2008 contending that townships pay too much for road work. Hamilton’s conclusion is backed up by a little-known Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT) study that determined the cost of maintaining township roads is sky-high when compared to other nearby counties.

(The IDOT study was released to Gov. Pat Quinn and the Illinois General Assembly on Dec. 27, 2010. It looked at data from the township fiscal year that ended March 31, 2009. The legislature asked IDOT to conduct the study.)

Under state law, townships are responsible for maintaining and repairing roads in unincorporated areas within the townships. Typically, unincorporated areas are not part of the federal, state or county they are located, or part of a nearby suburb or municipality.

Compared to five townships in Chicago-area counties, Cook County townships collectively have the fewest miles of roads, but pay the highest maintenance costs, a BGA analysis of the IDOT figures determined.

In Cook County, the 20 townships have 280 miles of roads in unincorporated areas and the average "cost-per-mile" to maintain them is $80,509. In fiscal year 2009, these Cook County townships spent $22.5 million to maintain their roads, a cost that includes personnel and benefits, equipment and facilities.

(In the transportation and construction business, the "cost-per-mile" ratio is a common measure of ongoing operating costs; in this case it applies to how much is being paid to repair existing roads.)

In comparison, the BGA analysis of state data found:

  • Lake County’s 15 townships have 480 miles and a cost-per-mile of $63,164;
  • DuPage County’s nine townships have 457 miles of road and a cost-per-mile of $42,515;
  • Will County's 23 townships have 1104 miles and a cost-per-mile of $32,174;
  • McHenry County's 17 townships have 776 miles and a cost-per-mile of $27,399; and
  • Kane County's 16 townships have 541 miles and a cost-per-mile of $30,048.

BGA Costly Roads Townships

And in his township study released in April 2008, Hamilton noted that, in comparison, the average cost to eight north and northwestern Chicago suburbs was $16,030 per mile, adding "most of these suburbs have four to five times the number of road miles as any township."

According to the BGA analysis of IDOT data, among the townships with the highest repair costs:

  • Stickney, with nine miles and a cost-per-mile of $256,833;
  • Leyden with 24 miles and a cost-per-mile of $139,002;
  • Hanover with 10 miles and $107,125;
  • Maine with 19 miles and $105,996; and
  • Northfield with 19 miles and a cost-per-mile of $99,739.

Having townships pay millions of dollars to repair and maintain roads is a waste of taxpayer money, especially in suburban Cook County, where the townships roads can be seamlessly absorbed through intergovernmental agreements into a nearby suburb, or the county, say township opponents.

For example, township and suburban officials describe winter storms where a suburb’s snowplow truck, in the middle of its route, will raise its plow for a stretch of road just to avoid clearing a patch of intersecting highway that’s maintained by the township.

Absorbing township highways into the county or suburban road repair and maintenance grid makes greater operational sense and would drive down costs to taxpayers, municipal finance experts say.

"If you were to start all over how would you operate those roads? " asks U.S. Rep Michael Quigley. "In no rational scheme does somebody have that small amount of roads—it’s inherently inefficient."

Cook County Township spokesman Robert Porter contends such talk is unrealistic because township roads are often difficult to maintain and no other government entity wants to adopt them.

"The public cry is: ‘Let the county have it.’ But the county doesn’t want it and neither do the municipalities," Porter says.

However, Stickney Township Supervisor Louis Viverito contends that Cook County may be more open to intergovernmental arrangements under recently elected Board President Toni Preckwinkle.

A spokeswoman for Cook County did not respond to BGA calls on this subject.

Nonetheless, there is a statewide movement to reign in the escalating township road costs, especially in the area of personnel, where the highest road-related expense for the 20 suburban Cook County townships were employee and worker benefits for health care insurance and pension payments, which accounted for $8.3 million.

That amount makes up 36 percent of the total $22.5 million in overall road expenses for fiscal 2009, according to the IDOT data.

Gov. Pat Quinn recently approved Senate Bill 1907, a law making it easier to abolish township road districts within Cook County, eliminate the role of highway supervisor and outsource pavement repairs and snow plowing.

"By eliminating the (road) division, you eliminate a measure of overhead," Illinois State Senator Steve Landek told the BGA recently. "It’s a small savings but it’s a step in the right direction."

Landek, who was chief co-sponsor of the streamlining SB 1907, recently served as a Lyons Township Supervisor.

BGA Director of Programming & Investigations Robert Reed Talks Townships by wdcbnews

>> Data, Resources & Acknowledgements

DATA: Townships Roads Costs—Cook, Kane, Lake, Will, DuPage, McHenry (Excel)
DATA:
Suburban Cook County Townships Roads—"Costs-Per-Mile" (Excel)
DATA:
Suburban Cook County Townships Assets, Liabilities and Cash (Excel)

DOCS: IDOT Townships Study, 2008 (Document Cloud)
DOCS:
"Local Democracy and the Townships of Illinois: A Report to the People," (PDF)
DOCS:
"Township Government Essential or Expendable? The Case of Illinois and Cook County" (Document Cloud)

The following BGA staffers and contributors worked on the Rescuing Illinois township project:
Robert Reed, director of investigations and programming; Robert Herguth, editor of investigations; Patrick Rehkamp, senior investigator; Andrew Schroedter, investigator; James Edwards, former BGA investigator
; Web Design & Illustrations: Solomon Lieberman, Taniesha Robinson and Adam Verwymeren; Policy Adviser: Emily Miller; Copy Editor: Jessica Curry; Interns: Ricardo Torres, Melanie Zanona and Michael Sandler; Freelance Reporter/Investigator: John Carpenter; and Data Provider: Metro Chicago Information Center.

 

RESCUING ILLINOIS

An ongoing series of in-depth reports about improving and reforming state government.


WHAT'S THE PRO-TOWNSHIPS ARGUMENT?

Curious what the defenders of townships have to say? READ IT HERE.


DATA & RESOURCES

See the numbers and sources behind this investigation, plus related links.


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