Behind the Numbers: The road (district) less taken - Metropolitan Planning Council

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Behind the Numbers: The road (district) less taken

Courtesy of Menard County

Ten road districts lie within Menard County.

For our Behind the Numbers series, we asked students at the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy to investigate selected types of special purpose districts in Illinois, analyzing the services provided, financial conditions and efficiency of service provision. Their work offers policy makers guidance on where to direct local government reform efforts going forward.

Illinois contains 7,000 units of local government—1,800 more than any other state in the nation—and that excess extends to our roads: There are 1,391 road districts in Illinois. Of these, just 59 are special purpose, specifically responsible for financing, constructing and maintaining unincorporated rural roads in 10 rural Illinois counties. Roads—boring, ubiquitous and essential—represent one of the most significant assets in any community, and districts and taxpayers annually spend huge sums of money on their creation and maintenance. Given the importance of our roads, as well as Governor Rauner’s consolidation task force and MPC’s Transform Illinois initiative, we wondered: Are these 59 special purpose road districts good candidates for consolidation?

The answer is maybe not. The broad argument that special purpose districts can easily be consolidated under other layers of government does not always apply to these road districts.

All road districts (special purpose, township and county unit) are responsible for unincorporated roads within their jurisdiction. Because these 59 road districts are all located in rural counties, their jurisdiction comprises many more unincorporated roads than their suburban road district counterparts. For the 29 urban township road districts surrounding Chicago, that comes to roughly 9.75 miles per road district. However, in special purpose road districts where cities are few and far between, each district maintains on average hundreds of miles. For Monroe County, consolidation would mean that either the county or its six largest cities would assume responsibility of the 430 miles of special purpose road district roads. The county’s current responsibility? 71 miles.

Counties currently lack the capacity to easily take on such an expansion in mileage. As a result, when it comes to ploughing Illinois’ snow or mending pavement, consolidation may not be the answer for improving government efficiency.

What do these road districts mean for taxpayers’ wallets? We analyzed each of the 59 districts’ financial conditions and found that, overall, they appear fiscally sound, with low levels of debt and liabilities and adequate revenue to expenditure ratios. In other words, unlike other parts of the state, special purpose road districts are not currently in danger of going broke. And while there may be efficiency gains to be made in consolidating these districts that we currently can’t measure, we believe that when considering the entire picture of runaway local governments in Illinois, political willpower is probably best spent elsewhere.

Learn more about this issue with other posts in the Behind the Numbers series.

Aviva Rosman is a graduate student at the University of Chicago's Harris School of Public Policy interested in a career in state and local government. She is currently working on a launching a startup, BallotReady, an online voter guide to local elections.

Cecelia Black is a graduate student at University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy with interests in housing, disability, and tax policy.  Prior to Harris, she worked as a financial education coordinator at a low-income credit union in Seattle.

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