CHICAGO -- Scheduling problems between the city of the Chicago and utility companies are costing taxpayers big money.
The Chicago Department of Transportation (CDOT) and Peoples Gas are simultaneously working on important upgrades, but in several examples on the northwest side, the work is being done in the wrong order. The city claims there's a good system in place to make sure taxpayer money isn't wasted, but that system is not working as well as it should.
For the past several years, CDOT has been redoing sidewalk ramps at intersections according standards set by the Americans with Disabilities Act. CDOT workers do meticulous concrete work. They patch up the road, and even replace soil and plant new grass. Depending on weather, it can take a couple weeks to finish the job and it’s not cheap. Each intersection, all four corners, costs $36,000. Unfortunately in some cases that work doesn’t last long because Peoples Gas comes in and rips it up.
“They just finished it last week, now they’re painting marks where they’re going to dig up again for the gas company,” said Larry Hoffmann, referring to an intersection down the street from his home.
At that intersection in Chicago’s Irving Park neighborhood, only one week after CDOT crews finished the job in April, Peoples Gas marked up the sidewalks and made plans to dig them up and put in new gas mains. Neighbors immediately asked: Why wouldn’t Peoples Gas go in first?
“I’m just wondering if there’s a part of government that oversees all the utilities and other city projects going on, does somebody coordinate all of them?” Hoffman said.
In fact CDOT has a department that coordinates scheduling for infrastructure improvements. It’s called the Project Coordination Office (PCO). Weekly meetings are held, and according to CDOT, the department has saved the city $47 million since it was created in 2012.
So what went wrong at the intersection in Irving Park?
When the Peoples Gas foreman on the job learned that WGN News was on the way to cover the story, he called his boss and Peoples Gas cancelled the job temporarily. To their credit, Peoples Gas quickly acknowledged that a mistake had been made in coordinating with CDOT. Peoples Gas director of communications, Jennifer Block, made herself - and Peoples Gas top engineers - available to WGN to answer questions. Plans were then made to reroute the work, so that taxpayer money wouldn’t be wasted.
“There are situations where unfortunately, in order to make sure our pipes are in a safe place, we need to disrupt recently poured sidewalks or streets, but we will then restore the area the way it needs to be,” Block said. “Obviously there was a breakdown in communication on this corner, but we’ve stopped our work, we’re going back to the drawing board.”
Peoples Gas called the situation at the intersection “an anomaly.” But only 2 blocks away, there was another example. At the intersection of Waveland and Kimball, Peoples Gas ripped up an intersection that CDOT finished just last summer.
“That pipe was also 110 years old, and the really important thing about Kimball and Waveland, if you could lift up the street and look underneath, there is an historic network of very congested pipes and infrastructure that really made it impossible for us to keep the mains in the street,” Block said.
Fair enough. Century-old pipes needed to be replaced. But redoing the sidewalks at the same intersection twice in one fiscal year doesn’t make much sense for a city reeling in debt. WGN found two examples just within two blocks on the northwest side, and Peoples Gas workers tell WGN off camera that there have been many cases over the years where they’ve had to rip up recently completed work.
33rd Ward Alderman Deb Mell is among city leaders now calling for better coordination between CDOT and utilities.
“I’m really happy this came to my attention in my ward, because it’s ridiculous. When people see this, they don’t have a lot of trust in what’s happening in their neighborhood,” Mell said. “I think it’s really frustrating, and for our taxpayers to see this happening, we need to get a better handle on it.”
CDOT, led by commissioner Rebekah Scheinfeld, declined interview requests and instead gave WGN this statement:
"Since the city’s project coordination office (PCO) was created in 2012, Chicago has made significant progress in coordinating our infrastructure investments between CDOT, water, and private utilities to ensure we are all being as efficient as possible with a minimal amount of disruption for residents. These coordination efforts have led to a savings of $47m since 2012, allowing us to stretch our investments even further.
The PCO uses the latest mapping technologies to track and sequence all of the work performed in the public way. The office holds weekly meetings involving staff from CDOT, the department of water management and a number of private utilities. last year alone, the PCO coordinated more than $1.5 billion worth of investments – which accounted for approximately 20,000 individual projects.
Unfortunately, there are inevitably emergencies in which recent work must be disturbed in order to make necessary repairs. When this happens, the city has a process in place to ensure that the city is reimbursed and our streets and sidewalks are restored to good condition.
In the case of Christiana and Grace, this was avoided."
However, the intersections highlighted in this report weren’t “emergencies.” There was no gas leak. Old pipes just needed to be replaced. WGN pointed this out to CDOT, but did not receive a response.
Neighbors said they’re concerned their tax dollars aren’t being well managed.
“I just feel like we don’t have an advocate that’s looking out for our money, they just care about getting their project done,” Hoffman said.
When Peoples Gas rips up an intersection, it is their responsibility to pay for and repair it. According to CDOT, last year Peoples Gas paid $6.4 million dollars in penalties for disturbing new work. That cost is ultimately absorbed by Peoples Gas customers - or anyone who pays for gas in Chicago.
Here are some other notes provided by Peoples Gas in response to this story:
- Any project of this size, scope and duration will have occasional problems. when those problems arise, we address them thoroughly and implement improvements.
- We are coordinating with the city to help ensure our infrastructure replacement program is in sync with other projects going on to minimize disruptions to our customers.
- We have made improvements, but recognize there are still opportunities to do better.
- Nearly 8 miles of new high-pressure backbone installed.
- More than 1,000 highly skilled jobs created– peak summer workforce 2,100.
- Modernizing our natural gas infrastructure is very important as many of our pipes date back into the late 1800’s and made of dated materials.
- It is a massive undertaking to update an energy delivery system that took 165 years to build, and do it in the third larger urban environment in the united states.