JOLIET – Gov. Bruce Rauner’s comments in Joliet last week as he announced a $190 million bridge project at Houbolt Road off Interstate 80 offered hope to local officials that the region is getting recognition as an essential hub in the state’s economy.
Whether it’s a big enough hub to attract more state and federal highway dollars to widen I-80 and fund other projects remains to be seen. But the announcement of a major bridge project appeared promising.
Local officials like to say that Joliet and Will County are where the action is when it comes to business growth in Illinois.
Rauner struck the same theme a few times Monday as he announced plans to build a bridge over the Des Plaines River to facilitate freight traffic in and out of the CenterPoint Intermodal Center.
“This is the largest inland port in North America right here in Will County,” Rauner said. He talked about congestion on Interstates 80 and 55 “blocking progress here” and called Will County “the transportation hub of Illinois.”
All of which was music to the ears to local officials who want to see state and federal money spent on highway improvements.
“I think we’ve made the case pretty significantly that this is an economic bright spot,” said Mayor Bob O’Dekirk.
O’Dekirk and others, however, said more is needed.
“I do think we all acknowledge that the bridge is a step, but it’s not the only step,” O’Dekirk said. “I think Will County is presenting a united front to all of our legislators that we need help.”
Two of the big projects on the agenda are adding more lanes to I-80 and upgrading the I-80 interchange at Illinois 53. New and improved interchanges along I-55, particularly Weber Road, also are on the list.
Illinois Department of Transportation Secretary Randy Blankenhorn at the news conference Monday said state officials “have heard loud and clear” that local communities need state involvement to improve highways. But Blankenhorn did not have answers when asked what might be in the works beyond the bridge.
The bridge itself is dependent on CenterPoint Properties, which last week said it is still doing a “financial feasibility study” on the project.
The funding plan is that CenterPoint would spend $150 million to $170 million on the bridge and recoup the money in tolls charged to truckers and other users. The state would spend $21 million to improve Houbolt Road and the I-80 interchange to make room for the increased traffic.
Blankenhorn said Monday that the state has a “master agreement” in place that commits CenterPoint. IDOT spokesman Guy Tridgell later in the week said in an email: “The agreement among all the parties is still in principle and in the process of being formalized.”
Still, officials generally have confidence that the bridge project is moving forward. The plan is to begin construction in 2017 and open the bridge by early 2018.
Will County Executive Larry Walsh Sr. said he hopes the bridge project will increase state awareness of transportation needs in the area.
“State government is going to get a firsthand, bird’s-eye view of the issues we face on a daily basis here with the congestion and the accidents,” Walsh said. “I hope this will open their eyes to what we’ve been talking about for a number of years.”