Local construction priorities revealed in Peoria, Elgin hearings

Elgin HearingHighway expansion, bridge improvements, college building projects and wastewater and sewage upgrades are among the priorities that continue to be identified by local officials throughout Illinois as lawmakers contemplate a new statewide construction plan and ways to pay for it.

Illinois has not approved a major infrastructure plan since 2009. During a series of hearings around Illinois this spring, state senators are hearing from mayors, township officials, civil engineers, college presidents, labor representatives and others about the deteriorating and sometimes unsafe condition of roads, bridges and public buildings throughout the state.

“When you have to make decisions about when to change lanes based on how big the holes in the road are, that’s a problem,” said Mark Poulos, executive director of the Indiana, Illinois, Iowa Foundation for Fair Contracting, during a hearing April 22 in Elgin.

At an April 8 hearing in Peoria, nearly two dozen concerned residents and officials from west-central Illinois and Iowa waited patiently to make lawmakers aware of the need for improvements to U.S. 34, a narrow, winding two-lane highway that has been the site of at least 12 fatalities since 2004.

“The 27-mile stretch between Monmouth and Burlington, the Illinois State Police have called this the most dangerous stretch of highway that they patrol,” Monmouth Mayor Rod Davies testified.

Elgin Community College officials said they need more than $17 million for new buildings and renovations to house programs such as mechatronics, pipe welding and ophthalmic laboratory technicians so that they can put more students to work in good-paying jobs that require those skill sets.

“For every dollar spent on community colleges, the rate of return is unsurpassed,” said Elgin Community College President David Sam, citing a statistic that 47 percent of college-bound students who graduate this spring are expected to pursue higher education outside of Illinois.

Better investment in infrastructure at Illinois universities and colleges is needed, he said, “because when (students) go, they don’t come back in large numbers.”

Sheila Quirk-Bailey, president of Illinois Central College in Peoria, made a similar argument. The school needs $23 million for construction and $13 million for deferred maintenance, and she noted that the state should place an emphasis on projects that can improve workforce development.

“I would hope the priority could go to initiatives that could turn around and provide the best rate of return for the state,” she said. “I can help you grow businesses, I can help you make families self-sustaining.”

Back in Elgin, Mayor Dave Kaptain estimated it will cost $110 million to replace all of the city’s lead pipes – a figure that is out of reach for the city. The project likely will require financial support from the state.

“Our primary concern is the health and safety of our residents. We’ll do whatever it takes to do that, but we need to have a plan on how to move forward,” he said.

Three more hearings on statewide construction needs are scheduled in the coming weeks: April 29 in Chicago, May 3 in Lake County and May 9 in Springfield. The hearings are chaired by State Senators Andy Manar (D-Bunker Hill) and Martin A. Sandoval (D-Chicago) and include senators from throughout Illinois.

“We’re getting a clearer picture of the dire road, bridge and building needs around the state,” Manar said. “As always, our challenge is to determine what the people of Illinois will allow us to do so that we can afford to make long overdue repairs and improve safety.”

Sandoval emphasized that bipartisanship will be needed as lawmakers look at possible revenue sources that would fund a capital plan.

“I think we can all agree that it’s clear that Illinois is in urgent need of a comprehensive plan to rebuild our crumbling infrastructure,” he said. “These hearings are giving us key insights as to what a construction plan would need to look like to address the needs we’re seeing throughout the state.”

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