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Local News

Without federal dollars available, locals look for infrastructure funding

A new proposed infrastructure funding formula would shift the burden onto local and state governments and the private sector

Whether the topic is businesses, politicians or even a commuter driving on the highway, the idea of infrastructure improvements can have wide-ranging approval.

So where does the conversation stand now?

The Trump administration has proposed $200 billion in federal spending during the next 10 years to be paired with about $1.3 trillion coming from local and state governments.

Typically, for projects to improve things such as highways, the federal government could finance up to 80 percent of the cost. President Donald Trump’s proposal would limit federal money to be used for up to 20 percent.

With those numbers on the table, state and local governments and the private sector will be looking to come up with alternative funding sources to address local infrastructure needs.

‘Just not reasonable’

Marc Poulos, executive director of the Chicagoland Operators Joint Labor-Management PAC, isn’t keen on Trump’s proposal for shifting the burden of infrastructure spending to state and local governments.

“They’re talking about flipping that,” Poulos said. “That’s just not reasonable.”

Beyond the fact that those numbers are part of a proposal that has to pass Congress and the fact that state governments also would have to come up with a lot of money, Poulos forsees problems with other aspects of the plan.

Both Trump and Gov. Bruce Rauner have spoken about public-private partnerships as possible ways to inject new revenue streams into big projects.

In an interview with The Herald-News in January, Rauner talked about “getting creative” with public-private partnerships on projects such as improving Interstate 55.

“I’ve talked to investors who would love to invest and expand our highway network where you can do flexible tolling and other creative ways to finance the roads and you don’t even need to have taxpayers pay for it,” Rauner said.

Poulos argued that there are very few projects that are ripe for public-private partnership investments. That, and he’s seen private investors try to change the system to ensure they are more prioritized in getting paid back, which they usually do at a higher rate of return than bond investors.

That’s at least in part why Poulos wants local governments to look elsewhere for money.

At the Feb. 15 Will County Board meeting, Bill Schillerstrom, chairman of the Illinois State Tollway Authority, spoke to board members about infrastructure needs. Tollways only are financed by their users and take no local, state or federal money, Schillerstrom said.

He talked about some possibilities of using a toll to fund much-needed improvements to and the expansion of Interstate 80, and he believes politicians might take kindly to the idea.

“We are familiar with the problems on [I-80],” Schillerstrom said. “We understand that there are safety concerns, and we understand that there are tremendous opportunities.”

In Springfield, state Sen. Pat McGuire, D-Crest Hill, said converting some part of I-80 into a tollway has been part of the discussions on funding sources, but it’s only an idea at this point. A bipartisan group in the General Assembly is working on infrastructure spending, and McGuire said four of the seven members are from Will County.

Other ideas have surfaced, such as increasing taxes and fees, but nothing concrete seems to be forming in the near future.

“It just doesn’t seem like there’s going to be an opportunity to go down to Springfield or go to Washington and seek dollars,” Schillerstrom said. “We’re going to have to figure out ways to do it ourselves, to do it locally.”

Building consensus

Many of the parties involved in discussions on infrastructure do agree on one thing: the need for building a coalition.

John Greuling, president and CEO of the Will County Center for Economic Development, said consensus on what to do among different levels of government and the private sector was key in projects such as the Interstate 355 extension and the Interstate 55 interchange on Weber Road in Romeoville.

He said that politicians have gained more awareness about the need for improving I-80. Greuling said that although there is no clear path forward at this point, the CED will be working throughout 2018 to create an organization to get leadership “rowing in the same direction” on infrastructure spending.

Building consensus on which potential projects need the most attention and how to pay for them is key for Greuling and others to achieve progress. He said one level of government typically doesn’t like to tell another unit of government below it how to do something, so everyone needs to get on the same page.

“If you bring them a package already neatly tied up, and you basically say the public [and] private sectors support this, it’s easier to get things done,” Greuling said.

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