You know that pothole on your street? The one that seems to grow larger by the week, threatening to permanently damage your car’s undercarriage or cause you to fly headfirst over your bike’s handlebars? The one that gathers stagnant rainwater to become the perfect breeding ground for West Nile Virus? Why isn’t it getting fixed?
If the pothole is on a residential street it can get filled individually or as part of a resurfacing of the entire street. The problem is that there’s no uniform, equitable, regularly scheduled manner in which this road maintenance is done.
Resurfacing of residential streets is overseen by aldermen and paid for with their “menu money”—the $1.32 million each of them gets every year for discretionary spending on streets, lights, parks, and other ward-level improvements. Most aldermen spend most of their menu money on residential street repaving and lighting, but as a new advisory from Chicago’s inspector general points out, some wards have way more residential street mileage than others. Wards are drawn based on population density, rather than square mileage, and the denser, wealthier wards on the north side tend to have fewer residential streets to resurface than the larger, more sparsely populated wards on the south side. This means the funds are often stretched thinnest where they’re needed most—and that’s not even taking into account ward-level politicking and favoritism that may put certain streets and neighborhoods ahead of others in line for resurfacing.
“The City’s management of residential street resurfacing is an infrastructure version of the ‘two Chicagos’ trend that OIG sees increasingly in its examination of municipal services and programs,” inspector general Joe Ferguson wrote in a statement last week. His office has for years recommended that the city take street resurfacing out of the aldermanic menu program and hand it over to Chicago Department of Transportation. CDOT already has jurisdiction over resurfacing major arterial roadways—thoroughfares like Ashland or Grand Avenues.
Ferguson said this recommendation should not be misunderstood as a call for abolishing the aldermanic menu program, which he said is “a third rail of local politics.” Instead, his intent is to “challenge its status quo operation, which effectively makes it impossible for the city to manage core infrastructure in a cost-effective and equitable manner.” The IG called on Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration “to examine the issues and recommendations raised, with fresh eyes, and to dedicate itself to reducing inequities in capital spending.”
Lightfoot’s office didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Meanwhile, if your alderman isn’t in the process of having your street resurfaced, CDOT can fill that pothole—but you must report it through 311 and wait, sometimes for weeks. The department has potholing crews that it dispatches across the city throughout the year, and they’re particularly in demand during the height of “pothole season” in the spring, when street surfaces crack and crumble after months of temperature fluctuations. When you report a pothole and a crew comes out, they’re also supposed to fix other potholes they see on the block. For every pothole reported, the city sometimes fills as many as 40 craters. Data about the potholing crews’ work is available on the city’s online Pothole Tracker. v