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Funding vs. Costs of Maintaining Local Roads

MARCH 06, 2018
by Craig Fink
Tazewell County

No other segment of the transportation system is expected to survive on just a portion of the revenue it generates.

As county engineer for Tazewell County and past president of the Illinois Association of County Engineers (IACE), I have been very active for the past 15 years in IACE research and studies on the cost of maintaining local roads in Illinois, as well as the available funding.

IACE is composed of licensed professional engineers representing all 102 counties in Illinois. Among their responsibilities are the management of all aspects of the county highway system, as well as technical assistance and oversight of IDOT-administered state and federal funding on the township and road district road system. We are therefore responsible for applying funding towards the maintenance of more than 60 percent of the public road mileage in Illinois—and are both uniquely qualified and highly familiar with the maintenance needs and available revenue sources. We are obligated as licensed professional engineers to hold paramount the public health, safety and welfare, and to issue public statements only in an objective and truthful manner.

We enjoy a seamless network of public roads in Illinois. Generations before us struggled to build and improve the interstates, federal and state highways, county highways, municipal streets, and township and road district roads that make up this network. Motorists are generally unaware of where the maintenance responsibility for a road changes from one entity to another as they travel this vast and seamless network. That is the way it should be, and when properly maintained, that is the way it is.

Two major factors, however, have taken away our ability to maintain that seamless nature of our public road system: 1) the shift away from an equitable reinvestment of the highway user fees generated by local roads; and 2) historic increases in the cost of basic maintenance of the local road system.

Inequitable Reinvestment
Local roads make up 89 percent of the public road mileage in Illinois, consisting of county highways, municipal streets, and township or road district roads. The maintenance of any road system, including local roads, is highly dependent on reinvestment of the fees collected from the traffic it carries, which is why they are called highway user fees. In Illinois, the state collects the highway user fees paid by motorists operating on all public roads and distributes a portion through formula back to all local roads for reinvestment.

This arrangement was created as a revenue-sharing mechanism. But a gradual shift has occurred away from distributing an equitable share of these highway user fees back to local roads—and more recently, this shift has accelerated.

Local roads currently and historically carry 40 percent of statewide traffic, thereby generating 40 percent of these highway user fee revenues. More than $3.25 billion in motor fuel tax and motor vehicle highway user fees were collected by the State of Illinois in 2016. Local roads carried 39.5 percent of the statewide traffic that year, yet received back from the state only $690.7 million—just 21.2 percent of those highway user fees, and $21.5 million below the amount they received in 2000. The shortfall between the state-collected highway user fees paid by traffic upon local roads versus what was returned to reinvest in local roads was $596.2 million. That is an insurmountable burden for local governments.

Historic Cost Increases
Now let us look at the historic cost increases for basic maintenance. IACE conducts a biennial study of the statewide cost increase faced by these highway user fees for maintenance of the local road system. The most recent study revealed that the 2014 cost was 2.48 times the 2000 cost for the average county highway, and 2.39 times the 2000 cost for the average township or road district road.

This combination of historic cost increases and declining return of highway user fees resulted in a loss of more than 60 percent of purchasing power. In other words, we could only afford to maintain four local road miles in 2014 for every 10 miles we maintained in 2000. As a result, maintenance on local roads is being deferred every year, and in some cases suspended entirely.

An IACE analysis estimates that 47 percent of the local road system will be suffering from deferred or suspended maintenance by 2019. In order to restore our ability to meet basic maintenance needs, local roads’ share of transportation revenues from the state would need to be increased by $1.1 billion. Importantly, revenues need to be indexed to adjust in relation to rising costs in order to break the historic cycle between basic maintenance and neglect of our local roads.

That additional $1.1 billion annually would only restore our missing ability to provide the most basic, system-preserving maintenance and stop the degradation. It would not provide for improvements or the numerous economic and quality-of-life benefits those improvements would bring.

An Insurmountable Burden
Improvement of the local road system has been studied as well. An IDOT study ordered by House Resolution 190 of the 92nd General Assembly found that the cost to upgrade rural local roads in Illinois to handle heavier and larger trucks was $45 billion in 2002. IACE updates this study periodically and in 2014 found that upgrading just five percent of the necessary rural mileage per year would require an additional $3.2 billion annually for 20 years—a total cost of $64 billion in 2014 dollars.

Fees paid by highway users need to be reinvested in an equitable fashion—and at a level that sustains the system. The formula distribution is designed to meet the system’s basic needs. As such, it impacts every county, every city, and every township or road district equally on a percentage of revenue basis. This holds true from the most highly urbanized to the most rural areas of the state.

Local roads cannot continue to carry 40 percent of Illinois’ traffic—thereby generating 40 percent of the highway user fee revenue collected by the state, yet receive back only 21 percent. No other segment of our transportation system is expected to survive on just a portion of the revenue it generates for the state. In fact, all other modes collect their user fees directly, and some, such as transit, receive state assistance above and beyond those fees.

We remember that generations before us struggled to build the seamless network of public roads we enjoy today. We now find ourselves watching this awe-inspiring system crumble back into the soft and fertile Illinois soil from which it sprang. We have placed an insurmountable burden on local government in the process. What will we leave for future generations? iBi

Craig Fink, PE, is the county engineer for Tazewell County and a past president of the Illinois Association of County Engineers.