Timing is everything when it comes to cash from stimulus in Illinois

Thomas V. Bona

Rock Island County has one of the lowest unemployment rates in Illinois and is one of 20 with the highest per-capita income.

But it still got $31 million in road projects in federal stimulus spending. That’s more than $200 a person.

On the other hand, Boone and Winnebago counties — among the three with the highest unemployment rates in the state — got about $10 million between them, or less than $30 a person.

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act may have been designed to spend money in the areas hardest-hit by the recession, but counties with the poorest economic indicators didn’t necessarily get the most from the Illinois Department of Transportation’s project list.

Instead, counties with big interstates tended to get the most money. And while local leaders are frustrated, they don’t blame IDOT.

The federal government “only gave the state DOTs 120 days, which really didn’t allow them to implement a program to assist economically distressed counties,” said Steve Ernst, executive director of the Rockford Metropolitan Agency for Planning, which oversees federal and state funding requests for transportation projects in the two counties. “They simply went with what was ready to go.”

Road projects funded by the stimulus had to focus on “economically distressed areas” with high unemployment, according to federal guidelines.

IDOT defined counties as economically distressed if, in 2008, they had more than 500 unemployed workers than the year before, saw their unemployment rates increase more than the state average or had a year-average unemployment rate above the state average.

That means most Illinois counties where the overwhelming majority of stimulus money was targeted are economically distressed. Rock Island, for example, saw a big enough jump in unemployment to count as economically distressed even though it didn’t meet the other criteria.

In fact, IDOT couldn’t spend the most money in the hardest-hit counties.

That’s because IDOT had another, more pressing guideline: It had to start more than $600 million in projects by June 17 — four months after the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act was enacted.

“If we had been given more time to get projects ready for stimulus funding, we would have had a bigger list” and funded more projects in hardest-hit areas, said Dick Smith, director of planning and programming.

While economic conditions were a factor, engineers ranked projects based on road condition and safety factors — the most-used roads in the most disrepair were higher priorities.

So while Rock Island County hasn’t felt the recession as the Rockford area has, it did have some big projects — like $15 million in resurfacing and bridge repair on Interstate 74.

Adams County in western Illinois got nearly $19 million in projects, even though it isn’t considered economically distressed. That’s mainly because of a $12 million resurfacing and bridge repair project on I-172.

Coles County in eastern Illinois counts as economically distressed, but got nearly $400 a person because of a $20 million project on I-57.

In fact, the areas receiving the most stimulus money are those with state-maintained interstates.

The problem for Boone and Winnebago counties is that the major interstate is the Illinois Tollway, thus not eligible for stimulus funding. Despite being one of the most populous counties, Winnebago has a relatively smaller number of state-maintained roads.

There are several ways to fix the problem, Ernst said.

State officials are crafting a capital construction plan this summer, and Ernst believes hard-hit areas should get priority. Because the capital plan would have billions, not just millions, of dollars, lawmakers could make some bigger splashes locally.

Also, Illinois stands to win more stimulus money next year if other states don’t meet their deadlines. Ernst believes that money could balance out the first wave of funding.

Counties are actually getting less in stimulus funding than was on IDOT’s original list. That’s because IDOT named almost $700 million in projects to ensure having $600 million ready to go when bids came in.

So in Boone and Winnebago counties, less than $9 million in IDOT stimulus projects were awarded, matching changes made around the state. But with bids coming in lower than expected, there’s a chance that more projects could be selected later on.

The two counties also get an additional $6 million in local road work done through next year from a separate pot of stimulus money.

Contact staff writer Thomas V. Bona at 815-987-1343 ortbona@rrstar.com.