BOLINGBROOK – The future for Will County is growth in freight and uncertainty on how to pay for the infrastructure to move it, according to speakers at a Tuesday conference called “Building the Future.”
Chief among those prognosticators was Illinois Transportation Secretary Randy Blankenhorn, the keynote speaker at the event, who told attendees to start brainstorming ways to fund big public projects.
“If we’re going to do things, you’re going to have to help us to think big,” Blankenhorn told the large gathering at the Bolingbrook Golf Club for a global logistics summit organized by the Will County Center for Economic Development.
Attendees included businesspeople in the logistics industry and local government officials.
The topic of President Donald Trump’s $1 trillion infrastructure spending promise was brought up more than once while speakers advised caution.
“God, I hope that’s true,” Blankenhorn said of a $1 trillion federal spending program. “I personally am not counting on that. But I do think something is going to happen.”
Whatever federal spending comes along, Blankenhorn said the traditional system of projects being built with 80 percent federal money and 20 percent state or local dollars is likely to go away.
More local spending and public-private partnerships will be the way of the future, he said.
“If you can bring local money to the table to match our money, to match federal money, that’s going to move projects forward,” he said. “It’s going to take a package from multiple sources that is going to move the big projects that have to happen.”
Joliet bridge and future airport
Blankenhorn pointed to the future bridge over the Des Plaines River in Joliet to be built by CenterPoint Properties as a “first-of-its-kind project” that will involve mostly private money while the state pays for a new interchange at Houbolt Road and Interstate 80.
“We expect to start breaking ground in the next year or so,” he said.
Blankenhorn and another Illinois Department of Transportation official also gave an update on a recent request for proposals from private developers to build a south suburban airport in the Peotone area.
Blankenhorn said the state began meeting with potential developers last week.
“It’s still under analysis,” he said.
Erin Aleman, director of IDOT’s Office of Planning and Programming, said the state would have more to say about the project “sometime this year.”
Blankenhorn repeated a previous vow to make a decision whether to build the airport, which has been in various stages of planning for about 30 years.
Speakers at the summit included former Illinois Transportation Secretary Ann Schneider, who heads the group developing the Will County Community Friendly Freight Mobility Plan.
Schneider pointed to a federal forecast that freight activity in the United States will increase 42 percent by 2040.
“So much of that freight is moving through Will County and that will have impact locally,” she said.
Colby Tanner, assistant vice president of economic development for BNSF Railway, which has an intermodal facility in Elwood, said the shift of consumer spending to online retailers means “larger industrial building to get products closer to consumers.”
“What you guys have here,” he told the Will County audience, “is unparalleled anywhere in the country, and you’re only going to see it grow.”
$1 trillion question
Paul Lewis, vice president for policy and finance with the Eno Center for Transportation in Washington, D.C., told the audience that there is little appetite in Congress for the $1 trillion infrastructure spending proposal made by Trump.
“Every single person we talk to on the Hill says it’s not going to happen – certainly not this year and maybe not in this administration,” Lewis said.
The priority in Washington, he said, is deficit reduction.
“If you’re looking for new investment,” Lewis told the audience, “it’s something that’s not likely to come from the federal government.”