Illlnois Department of Transportation Secretary Ann Schneider
Updated: June 5, 2014 6:18AM
Planning for transportation is all about building and maintaining momentum. Here in Illinois, we have experienced a run of momentum in recent years like few other states.
Since early 2009, the Illinois Department of Transportation has been delivering projects at a record pace, thanks to the largest capital program in Illinois history — the six-year, $31 billion Illinois Jobs Now!
To date, IDOT has awarded nearly 6,200 projects worth more than $15 billion, creating and supporting roughly 190,000 jobs since Illinois Jobs Now! passed in 2009.
Projects that languished for years waiting for a financing champion — such as the Illiana Expressway, the South Suburban Airport and the widening of LaGrange Road through Orland Park and Tinley Park — have come to life, creating jobs, improving mobility and promoting economic development.
We need to keep that momentum going to build upon our success and the world-class system of transportation we have created in Illinois. That’s why Gov. Pat Quinn’s proposed budget is so important.
Over the last five years, the governor and the General Assembly have cut general spending by roughly $5.7 billion, achieved landmark pension reform and reached the most cost-effective collective bargaining agreement in history. Because of these hard steps, Illinois is in a stronger financial position today.
Gov. Quinn’s proposed budget sets the stage for a healthier long-term financial future. The credit rating agencies have weighed in, describing the budget plan as one that will “provide a basis for the state to achieve fiscal balance.” The centerpiece of these plans is maintaining the current income tax rate, while providing homeowners relief with an annual $500 property tax refund.
Why is all this good for transportation in Illinois?
All major infrastructure repair or construction requires financing. For IDOT to take on larger projects with confidence, the state needs to be in strong fiscal shape to ensure that Illinois has the best possible bond rating to get the lowest interest rate. Without a better budget alternative in sight, the state’s bond rating undoubtedly will suffer if the budget plan is pushed aside.
The construction costs of IDOT projects wouldn’t change, but the cost of financing them could. An improved bond rating could save the state tens of millions of dollars per year.
Worst case, without agreement on the Quinn budget plan, projects currently in the planning stages could wind up getting delayed and deferred simply because we could not reasonably afford the financing to move them forward.
This could have an impact on two projects of great interest in the Southland — the Illiana Expressway and the South Suburban Airport.
The Illiana Expressway is at an especially critical point. IDOT is negotiating with private developers on a financing agreement to build and operate the tollway that would link Interstate 55 near Wilmington to I-65 near Lowell, Ind.
Those negotiations are dependent on developing an investment-grade financial rating that uses the state’s bond rating as a baseline. If the bond rating slips, coming up with the best financing plan possible for the Illiana would be a challenge.
The South Suburban Airport also is at a key juncture. We are now gauging interest from the private sector on how the airport would best fit the needs of the market.
If the state is not on sound financial footing, however, this crucial planning could be put on the back burner indefinitely.
The list of important transportation projects goes on and on. To put the brakes on the progress we have been making would be devastating.
We need to keep the momentum going. Gov. Quinn’s budget plan will do exactly that.
Ann Schneider is Illinois’