With the Illiana Expressway project on life support, Will County officials say they have no choice but to shift their sights elsewhere to accommodate the ever-increasing truck traffic in the region.
Pinpointing problem areas and potential alternative projects might be the easy part.
Securing money to carry out the road improvements is another story – as state funding for Illinois roads and bridges become increasingly crippled because of lackluster revenue streams and too many potholes and cracked roads to count.
The county’s two intermodals in Elwood and Joliet – making up the largest inland port in the U.S. – have been around for years, yet its transportation network largely remains unchanged. That’s despite the thousands of heavy overweight trucks that continues to take a toll on state highways, as well as county and local roads.
So one major question remains: What will it take for state officials to realize that Will County – which many believe to be a major economic engine not only for the region, but the upper Midwest and North America – is in desperate need of some major infrastructure improvements?
The match in the powder barrel might be the federal court’s June 16 decision deeming the federal government’s approval of the Illiana Expressway project invalid. The proposed highway would have created a new roadway linking Interstate 55 near Wilmington to Interstate 65 in Indiana. The Illinois Department of Transportation also has removed the project from its current multi-year plan.
“I think there’s a new sense of urgency. … The Illiana Expressway isn’t dead, but it’s on some sort of life support,” said John Greuling, president and CEO for the Will County Center for Economic Development. “Our position is, ‘OK, right now we can’t count on that road. We can all hope and wish and believe, but this is almost like waiting for Santa to come down the chimney Christmas morning.’”
Will County Executive Larry Walsh Sr. said the IDOT has the option to appeal the federal court decision and modify the invalid environmental impact study. But whether that happens is up to IDOT.
Walsh said county officials need to be prepared to help fund major alternative projects – like the widening of Interstates 80 and 55, building a Houbolt Road bridge over the Des Plaines River, and possibly upgrading Wilmington-Peotone Road as an east-west route for truckers in the absence of the Illiana.
Will County Highway Engineer Bruce Gould said the burden will certainly fall on the local taxpayers now that the Illiana has been nixed.
“Utilizing the existing system will definitely cost us,” Gould said.
Lacking state funds
Mike Sturino, president and CEO of Illinois Road and Transportation Builders Association, and member of the Transportation for Illinois Coalition, said Will County is certainly worth investment from the state.
“If we don’t invest in Will County, I think we’re being very short-sighted,” Sturino said.
But state funding for roads and bridges remains a glaring issue, Sturino said, noting how IDOT’s multi-year program calls for about $1.85 billion in spending in Fiscal Year 2016 – or a 2-percent decline from last year. Meanwhile, state funds make up only $352 million of next year’s spending, or a decrease of 70 percent from last year’s total of $1.16 billion.
Since 2010, the state’s share of IDOT’s transportation plan has dwindled, Sturino said, forcing federal and local funds to pick up the slack.
“Our current funding system is not really catching up with the increased needs that we have,” Sturino said.
Sturino said he believes Illinois needs to follow suit of other states by raising its gas tax, which hasn’t changed in 20 years, as a short-term fix. Then, state officials need to seriously consider other revenue sources as a long-term fix – such as a pay-by-the-mile user fee program. Oregon just kickstarted its own pilot program, Sturino said.
Unfortunately, Sturino said, Rauner line-item vetoed $700,000 in funds set aside for a vehicle-miles-driven program study when he recently approved a reappropriation of funds for IDOT to keep the construction season going.
Sturino said IDOT also is heading for some tough times if the $350 million in funds that Rauner swept earlier this year to fill a budget gap isn’t returned soon.
“If that money is not reallocated soon, we’re looking at a 70-percent reduction in state funding for IDOT projects,” Sturino said.
“We’re OK this construction season, but next year is troubling with lawmakers and Rauner engaged in this Mortal Kombat budget battle in Springfield.”
Another concern, he said, is the fact that federal money increasingly accounts for most of the funding in IDOT’s multi-year road plan. Illinois officials are too dependent on Congress, which has failed year after year to come up with a stable, long-term transportation plan, he said.
A lack of state funding for roads is all the more reason why Will County’s RTA funds are so vital, Walsh said.
Several Will County Board members have expressed interest in sweeping some RTA funds each year to help pay for a new county courthouse, but Walsh said that money could ultimately mean the world when county officials apply for federal grant dollars – which, more often than not, require a local match.
“If we’re not going to see the state there to help us out, the responsibility is going to fall on our shoulders,” Walsh said.