For now, capital projects statewide are stalled

Andrea Zimmerman

The Chicago-area mass transit bailout has left the station, but a plan to improve roads, bridges and other infrastructure around all of Illinois failed to hitch a ride.

The state’s Democratic leaders are moving forward with a plan to bolster the Chicago Transit Authority and other mass transit systems around Chicago by raising the regional sales tax. Republicans tried to force those Democrats to also advance a statewide capital plan by withholding their support for the mass transit bailout, but they failed.

Democrats, who control both chambers of the Legislature as well as the governor’s office, managed to pass their plan anyway.

“It’s the Chicago power grab,” said House Minority Leader Tom Cross, R-Oswego. “It’s really not a surprise to any of us.”

Now capital projects around Illinois must continue their wait for state support. As lawmakers head into a new session, it’s unclear when they ever might address pressing capital needs.

Lawmakers have not approved a major capital plan since 1999, the first year of former GOP Gov. George Ryan’s administration.

In the Peoria area, roughly one mile from the city’s new Interstate 74 is a vacant plot of land that was once home to Caterpillar Inc.’s oldest factories, said Roberta Parks, senior vice president of the Peoria Area Chamber of Commerce.

Since Caterpillar moved into newer facilities, nothing has come to fill its place because the road and surrounding streets that connect the 65 acres of unoccupied lots to the rest of East Peoria would choke with added traffic congestion, Parks said. A new road, which would be called Technology Boulevard, would also raise property values and be more attractive to developers, she said.

The two roads, I-74 and Technology Boulevard, are daily reminders of the state Legislature’s impasse over a capital construction project. The I-74 renovation was funded through Ryan’s Illinois First construction program, and the $17.9 million project between Edmund and Washington streets still waits.

Parks said the Technology Boulevard area is ripe for redevelopment because of its proximity to the Illinois River, downtown and the interstate. She noted Blagojevich stopped at the site on a 2006 tour to promote his own version of a capital plan, which has never cleared the Legislature.

With no capital program, the $17.9 million project will never even begin.

“The Peoria community in the state of Illinois is going to fall further behind (if no capital program is passed),” Parks said. “Infrastructure drives development, and that’s all there is to it.”

The state does have a multi-year program for road work, but it’s far more conservative than a capital plan would be. The multi-year program is focused on road maintenance, not ambitious new projects. A capital plan could be worth more than $20 billion after accounting for state, federal and local dollars.

“It’s going to be a real missed opportunity if Illinois does not get a capital bill this year,” said Sen. David Koehler, D-Pekin.

A last-minute amendment to the mass transit plan added dollars for downstate transit systems, such as in Springfield and Peoria, which would receive $1.2 million and $1.8 million, respectively, according to an analysis provided by Koehler.

In Springfield, Brad Warren, executive vice president of the Greater Springfield Chamber of Commerce, says his city is a crossroads of state highways and interstates.

As a result, a lot of roads that must be maintained.

Rep. Raymond Poe, R-Springfield, can name a list of bottlenecks that snarl traffic on the east and west sides of town from Dirksen Parkway to Wabash Avenue. Other areas may become downright hazardous such as on MacArthur Boulevard, where four lanes of traffic become a two-way highway, he said.

Warren said these roads are local roads and that Springfield needs the state’s help to keep them safe.

“We need the state’s partnership to redevelop our local road system,” Warren said.

Outside of roads, people like Warren are looking for new buildings to help further develop the city’s medical district. Warren said it is difficult to plan for the future without knowing how the state and any sort of capital plan will play into the picture.

“As we look to the future ... we have to consider all possible revenue sources,” Warren said. “Of course, if the state were moving forward with a capital plan, that would help us understand our local role in meeting those local infrastructure needs.”

In Rockford and surrounding communities, projects are waiting on more than $100 million in construction dollars.

“My fear is if we don’t get a (capital program) now, when are we ever gonna get it?” said Rep. Jim Sacia, R-Pecatonica. “If I were to express in a word how I feel, it’s ‘frustrated.’”

Though Republicans mostly opposed the mass transit bailout, a few suburban GOP lawmakers helped Democrats push the plan through. In the House, four Republicans joined 58 Democrats in supporting it. In the Senate, three suburban Republicans joined 27 Democrats.

On the other hand, downstate and some suburban Democrats — seven in both the House and Senate — opposed it.

After the Legislature voted, Gov. Rod Blagojevich said he would use his veto power to change the plan to award seniors across Illinois with free mass transit service, but that he would support the sales-tax hike — thereby violating a campaign pledge.

Staff writer Aaron Chambers contributed to this report. Staff writer Andrea Zimmermann may be reached at 217-753-3882 or