Lawmakers unsure of prospects for capital project

2014-02-24T00:00:00Z Lawmakers unsure of prospects for capital projectT. J. Fowler Lee Springfield Bureau nwitimes.com
February 24, 2014 12:00 am  • 

SPRINGFIELD | Rank-and-file state lawmakers agree Illinois needs a new capital construction program, but questions remain about how to fund one.

The state’s current $35 billion program — the largest in state history — will come to an end in 2015, and legislators say they hope to renew investment in the state’s infrastructure as soon as possible.

“One of the best ways we can turn the economy around is to increase the state’s investment in the economy,” said state Sen. Andy Manar, D-Bunker Hill. “That’s a challenge, though. Nothing is free.”

Manar said a program would be particularly helpful to his district, which includes Decatur and is plagued by high unemployment.

“We can look at any number of places in Macon County or Decatur where those investments are needed and justified,” he said. “The best way to turn employment around in the immediate future is with a capital works bill.”

Many also are concerned about the degradation of the state’s infrastructure.

The Transportation for Illinois Coalition, which consists of business groups and labor unions, reports that one-third of the state’s roads and one-tenth of its bridges will be in unacceptable condition by 2018. By 2015, the group estimates that 4,294 miles of roads will be in disrepair.

“TFIC’s hope is the governor and lawmakers embrace a capital plan this year, as both state and federal funding for capital projects is in jeopardy with expiring programs in 2015,” said Ryan Keith, a spokesman for the group. “If nothing more is done by 2018 to invest in infrastructure, we will see a decline to about 65 percent of our roads in good shape in just a few years.”

State university officials also are facing a mountain of repair bills to their facilities.

In testimony to a House committee Thursday, Southern Illinois University President Glenn Poshard said the campuses at Carbondale and Edwardsville are in need of $550 million in maintenance at a time when spending on higher education has taken a hit.

"Every university in the state is in the same position," Poshard told members of the panel.

Gov. Pat Quinn is expected to address the state’s need for a new capital works program in his budget speech next month. But, he's also facing the Jan. 1 rollback of the state's temporary income tax increase, which could leave a $1.6 billion hole in revenue for general state operations.

But Sen. Jason Barickman, R-Bloomington, said it’s a tough problem to tackle.

“The state absolutely needs an investment in its infrastructure,” he said. “Where the money comes from and how the priorities are set in spending any of those dollars is the huge unknown.”

Sen. Dave Luechtefeld, R-Okawville, said that the need for a capital bill definitely exists, but he doesn’t expect to see one soon.

“There’s always a need for one, and as time goes forward that need grows,” he said. “The tough part is always how do you pay for it? It’s easy to vote to improve conditions in your district, but it’s never easy to figure out how to pay for it... I don’t see it happening this year.”

If the cash-strapped state wants to start a new capital program, said state Rep. Mike Smiddy, D-Hillsdale, lawmakers will have to find new sources of revenue.

“I think that’s probably what they’re in discussions about right now,” he said. “I’m hoping they do that before the election’s over, but I don’t know.”

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