Candidates square off on roads

$79.5M program and $28M in road bonds for county’s largest road construction project at issue

Newly appointed Winnebago County Board Chairman, Republican Scott Christiansen, wants county board members to approve selling $28 million in bonds for the county’s largest road construction projects ever proposed. Christiansen, who is also a candidate for the position in the fall election, said the bonds are being sold to spur economic development that will result in a “quick return” on the investment.

Christiansen’s opponent in the fall election, Paul Gorski (D), called Christiansen’s plan to sell bonds for road infrastructure “ill-advised and fiscally unsound.”

The plan is part of a larger $79.47 million program called “Build Winnebago County Partnership.” Christiansen said the partnership consists of the county, Rock River Water Reclamation District and Winnebago County Highway Department. Included in the $79.47 million are three Reclamation District sewer projects that total $20 million.

“Build Winnebago” also includes: reconfiguring 21 intersections; resurfacing, expanding and upgrading about 122 miles of 25 existing roads; repairing six bridges; and construction of one building near the corner of Springfield Avenue, and West State Street, building approximately 14 miles of two new recreation paths, and four miles of two new roads. One of the new roads includes the controversial 2-mile extension of Perryville Road north from Illinois 173 to Swanson Road.

Gorski responded to the proposal by saying: “While road infrastructure is important to economic growth, and some of these road projects are indeed needed, they can be dealt with through the normal budgetary process. Borrowing the funds to pay for these roads drives up the real cost of these projects and will restrict the county’s ability to finance future projects.

“Nobody has convinced me that we need all these roads immediately and that they will increase the quality of life and create jobs. I would worry more about balancing the budget and pulling people together for long-term plans like land use and regional transportation,” he said.

Christiansen countered that the cost of interest will be offset by the difference in present and future construction costs, future property tax revenue, and creation of job opportunities. However, Christiansen could not produce tax and job projections that the proposed projects could generate. He pointed to the past as evidence that his proposal will pay dividends on the taxpayers’ investment.

Christiansen said approximately 10 years ago, the county sold $10 million in bonds for road construction, which included portions of Perryville Road, Charles Street, and Spring Creek Road. Past extensions of Perryville Road., have been labeled by critics as “urban sprawl,” which has had a net increase in government expenses and added to taxpayers’ burden.

Chrisitiansen said past and future expansions of Perryville are necessary for the economic development of the area. However, most of the proposed road projects are resurfacing, expanding and upgrading existing roads not in growth corridors but rural areas such as about 8 miles of Baxter Road.

Again, Christiansen could not provide numbers to support his claim that the $10 million, without interest, taxpayers invested in road construction bonds 10 years ago, was off-set by increasing property tax revenue and creation of jobs. However, Christiansen said sales tax revenue along newly constructed parts of Perryville increased from $5.8 million in 1995 to $7.1 million in 2000.

Winnebago County Board member Randy Olson (R-1) said he spoke earlier this year with three representatives of two of the area’s construction giants to inquire whether they had the ability to meet construction demands should the plan be approved. Olson proposed selling $50 million in road construction bonds in March, and was asked by Christiansen to be pointman for the program.

Olson said he met with Chuck Howard, president of Winnebago Reclamation Service, Inc., and owner of William Charles Ltd. Winnebago Reclamation is part of the Waste Group that owns several area recycling companies and disposes of Rockford’s garbage.

In addition to Winnebago Reclamation, William Charles is the parent of many companies, including Rockford Blacktop and Rockford Truck Sales and Services Inc. Olson said he also met with Gary Marzarati, president of Rockford Truck Sales and vice president of Winnebago Reclamation.

Winnebago Reclamation owns five properties along Baxter Road that total 132.41 acres. In 2003, Rockford Truck Sales advertised the sale of property near the I-90/Illinois 75 intersection, which is adjacent to seven of the proposed projects. Howard personally owns 1.48 acres on Prairie Hill Road near the same area.

Howard’s business associate, developer Sunil Puri, owns properties at the southwest intersection of I-90 and Illinois 75. He also owns a number of properties along the planned northward extension of Perryville Rd., and near the proposed I-90 interchange at Illinois 173—near Christensen’s Belvidere Rd., project.

The program also calls for improving five intersections in and near Durand, where Rockford Blacktop owns 37 properties that are being developed into homes in the Otter Creek subdivision.

Howard and Sue Grans, spokesman for William Charles, did not return calls for comment about this article.

Olson also said he also spoke with Robert Stenstrom, president and chief executive officer of Stenstrom Companies, Ltd. County records suggest Stenstrom does not own property near any of the proposed projects.

In contradiction to Olson’s statement, Christiansen said during an interview Friday Howard and Stenstrom had nothing to do with the with the road bond proposal. Christiansen said many of the proposed projects were planned 10 years ago, when he was a county board member.

In William Charles’ winter issue of its employee newsletter The Scoop, Howard wrote; “We also need governmental investment in the basic infrastructure of the 21st century—education, telecommunications, intermodal transportation and an efficient urban road system.”

Howard wrote in the May issue of The Scoop: “This is an election year. What we need are some candidates who will run for office promising to raise taxes. …A safe, efficient transportation system, a good public education system, a strong commitment to public safety, effective flood control, and colleges or universities—these are the features that attract and retain business investment. …

“Public investment creates economic growth. …So, here is my campaign idea: instead of offering tax breaks to attract firms, raise taxes and invest the money in the public services and infrastructure that will make this the place business will want to be,” Howard wrote.

Olson also said Howard gave him a copy of a DeKalb Co., resolution that would allow local companies to be awarded contracts if they are not the low bidder, but within 10 percent of the lowest qualified bid for work.

Since the proposed $28 million in road bonds is significantly larger than the $10 million in the 1990s, Christiansen was asked if an advisory referendum in the fall election would be justified. Christiansen responded that an advisory referendum would needlessly delay the projects, while increasing construction costs and defer much needed economic development.

“There’s no way we can do these projects with existing revenue flow. We’ve got to expedite it. …We’re responding to the demand for roads, obviously,” Christiansen said.

When asked if new road construction conflicts with the county’s own Green Communities survey that was published in February, Christiansen said he hadn’t read it, but insisted that the program would not result in sprawl, but economic development (see March 10 article “Environmental survey results show concern).”

In return for taxpayers’ investment in the projects, Christiansen said he would consider proposing more stringent road construction standards, requiring contractors to guarantee their work and take responsibility for th

e lifetime of the road.

The idea of better roads through tougher regulations was recently proposed by Dr. William Hammack, University of Illinois associate professor of chemical and biological engineering.

Hammack explained that the key to high-quality, long-lasting roads is compacting, smoothing, and mixing the soil used for the roadbed. Such an approach is used in most of Europe and South Africa, but not in the United States, Hammack said.

“A pothole is not just a technological thing, it’s also a political entity,” Hammack asserted, during a commentary last month on National Public Radio.

“Usually we think of European nations as steeped in governmental regulation, and of the United States as a free market, but actually the opposite occurs in building roads. In the United States, the government sets specifications and asks contractors to meet them. Once done with the road, they have no more responsibility. …

“The prescription…is to give contractors adequate funds to build a strong roadbed, and in return require them to take responsibility for their road throughout its lifetime,” Hammack said.

To read a transcript of Hammack’s commentary visit:

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