SPRINGFIELD — The agency that warns Illinois motorists to be prepared for winter driving season almost wasn’t prepared for the winter driving season itself.
Earlier this month, officials at the Illinois Department of Transportation had to make a last-minute purchase of nearly 2,000 snowplow blades because the original blade vendor had fallen behind on his order.
The failed contract, according to records, could have left IDOT without the equipment it needed to tackle wintry road conditions in areas ranging from Decatur to the Quad-Cities.
The agency’s 11th-hour $444,000 purchase of snowplow blades was just the latest in a series of no-bid purchase requests by state agencies that have come under fire in recent months.
In October, one member of the state board overseeing purchasing for the Quinn administration complained that state agencies had to make emergency purchases worth $61 million in the first quarter of the fiscal year.
By comparison, Illinois Procurement Policy Board member Ed Bedore said the state spent $32 million on similar no-bid deals for the entire last full year of the Blagojevich administration.
“It is a disgrace,” Bedore told the board as he questioned whether mismanagement was costing taxpayers.
As the winter of 2013 descended on Illinois, IDOT had a fleet of 3,252 plows ready to tackle any ice or snow that might build up on the 43,500 lane miles of roadway the agency maintains.
But without blades, many of those plows would be useless.
IDOT spokeswoman Paris Ervin said each snowplow blade can last several hundred miles, unless they are prematurely damaged by hitting pot holes or other objects.
The mild winter of 2012 was kind to the state’s cash-strapped budget. The agency reported spending $37.3 million on snow and ice operations last year, compared to $85.3 million in the previous winter.
Spending on salt, which is used to melt snow and ice, also was down in 2012, with $15.1 million worth of salt spent statewide, compared to $35.7 million the previous year.
In its request for the emergency snowplow blade purchase, IDOT officials said the company holding the original contract couldn’t provide enough blades when they were needed.
But that contract covered the fiscal year ending in July. In its request, IDOT said the state’s main purchasing agency — the Department of Central Management Services — was still working to sign a new contract as winter set in.
In January, IDOT officials apparently decided they couldn’t wait any longer and filed the request for the emergency purchase.
Ervin said many of the new blades have been delivered to the districts affected by the shortfall, which cover cities such as Rock Island, Pontiac, Bloomington, Decatur and Lincoln.
As for other snow- and ice-fighting supplies, Ervin said the state is in good shape.
In an email, she said the state has an “adequate” supply of salt on hand for the rest of the winter season.