Chicago suburb of Long Grove wants to privatize almost half of its public roads

Maintaining roads is expensive and the Chicago suburb of Long Grove has a potential solution: privatize a lot of its public roads.

Facing an annual funding gap of more than $1 million, Long Grove trustees have twice in recent months affirmed a plan that could privatize nearly half of the village’s public roads — transferring the cost of upkeep and plowing to the residents in the process…

Experts in public planning and municipal finance agree that Long Grove has hit upon an unusual potential solution to a commonplace problem. They say other communities also struggling to make ends meet could follow suit as aging roads deteriorate and revenue streams dry up. Yet such plans could eat away at the public’s trust in local leadership even as they mitigate public deficits, warned Joseph Schwieterman, a DePaul University transportation professor.

“It’s going to create resentment that city hall has broken its contract to fix the roads, and that could lead to turmoil that tears at the social capital of a community,” he said.

What has surprised some in and around well-to-do Long Grove is that the community — with its spacious home lots, ample green space and refined, rural character — finds itself in the situation at all. Recent census figures count it among the wealthiest villages in the Chicago area based on median income. Yet having more affluent residents doesn’t necessarily equate to a strong tax base, especially in towns that have little or no industry…

Local leaders first realized in the 1970s that to pay for maintaining roads without a property tax, something had to give, said Long Grove Village Manager David Lothspeich. After that, the board allowed public streets in new subdivisions only if they were main roads, and eventually entire subdivisions sprang up without a single public road, he said.

It sounds like a set of trade-offs: the community has a particular image and character involving big lots, nice homes, and no property taxes but to help maintain that character means limited commercial development. However, having less commercial or industrial development means fewer sources of property and sales taxes that can be used to maintain the community’s infrastructure. The money has to come from somewhere…

However the money is raised in the future for roads, it will be interesting to see how this affects the community’s character and image. Will people move away? Will it be as attractive?

Another suburb dealing with a similar issue is Winfield. The village has had difficulty paying for road maintenance and the debate in recent years has been whether to allow commercial development along the Roosevelt Road corridor that passes through the southern part of the community but it currently limited to larger lots.