Quinn Borrows $1.1 Billion to Keep IDOT’s Steamrollers Going

Governor Quinn Signs $1.1 Billion   Capital Construction Bill
Governor Pat Quinn signs the bill in front of workers at the Circle Interchange construction site today. Photo: IDOT

Governor Pat Quinn signed two bills today that allow the state to issue $1.1 billion in general obligation bonds to spend on highway resurfacing, widening, and bridge repair. The bills explicitly exclude transit from the new funds, and while they don’t seem to exclude bike lanes, trails, or sidewalks, all of the funds are already obligated to car-centric road projects [PDF].

Erica Borggren, acting secretary for the Illinois Department of Transportation, said in a press release, “This construction program is the shot in the arm that our transportation system and our economy needs.”

What the economy and our transportation system also need is an efficient and sustainable way for users to pay the system’s ongoing costs — rather than a stopgap that socks future taxpayers, whether transit riders or pedestrians or drivers, with big loan payments. Keep in mind that today, Illinois has the country’s worst credit rating, and thus pays the highest interest rate of any state — 42 percent more interest than usual.

Springfield’s State Journal-Register reported that “the plan got overwhelming support in the final days of the legislative session, though some lawmakers were concerned that they didn’t have enough time to study where the money would go.” The answer, as with most anything related to IDOT spending, is “overwhelmingly Downstate.”

Just over four percent of the funds will be spent in Chicago, home to 22 percent of the state’s population. Most of that will go to reconstruct and replace the bridges and viaducts on the Stevenson Expressway (I-55), between the Dan Ryan Expressway (I-94) and South Lake Shore Drive. $700,000 will be spent to resurface 0.6 miles of South Michigan Avenue in Washington Park.

Just under 37 percent of the funds will be spent in the six-county Chicagoland area, and the majority of that will go to exurbs and rural areas. This might prove convenient for Quinn during an election year, especially given the dwindling fund balance in his signature “Illinois Jobs Now!” program. The program has just $115 million left to spend, according to IDOT spokesperson Paris Ervin.

McCormick Place West
I-55, between I-90/I-94 and Lake Shore Drive (shown here) will see bridge repairs, resurfacing, and new lighting and surveillance. Photo: Eric Rogers

It’s unclear if federal matching funds will be part of this package. The governor’s office tends to highlight the inclusion of federal funds — which are similarly problematic, since those funds increasingly come from general revenues instead of user fees.

While it’s true that Illinois (like most states) is playing catch-up with its road maintenance needs, transit, bicycling, and pedestrian infrastructure projects ultimately provide a higher economic return than road expansion. They provide more jobs per dollar invested, and decrease households’ annual transportation expenses.

The next Illinois governor, which could easily be Quinn again, must work with the General Assembly to find a more sustainable – and cheaper – revenue source for transportation projects. Their options include increasing the gas tax with automatic, future increases tied to inflation, tolling existing highways, or something else entirely.

  • Ryan Lakes

    I hate that Illinois has the worst credit rating and highest interest rate.
    How long has that been the case? Major contributing factors?

  • NorthSure

    Hey, weren’t the exurbs, rural areas and “downstate” that has a third of the population and is getting two-thirds of this money gonna secede? Something about being sick of Chicago sponging up all their tax dollars?

  • NorthSure

    “The next Illinois governor, which could easily be Quinn again,”

    “Easily” is the last word I’d use to describe the way Quinn would be governor again.

  • For several years. I was reviewing the State of Illinois’s General Obligation bond ratings on Moody’s. Here’s what I found:

    January 2012, rating lowered from A1 to A2
    December 2012, rating maintained, but outlook changed to negative
    November 2013, various *new* GO bonds are given various ratings, all better than A2, including Aa1, Aa2, and Aa3.

    But this doesn’t give you the full outlook. You can see the up and down wild ride on the Moody’s website.

    https://www.moodys.com/credit-ratings/Illinois-State-of-credit-rating-600024371

    Illinois Policy wrote, “Illinois has suffered 13 downgrades from the three major rating agencies since Gov. Pat Quinn took office in 2009.” and “The rating agency cited a “lack of action on reform measures” as a reason for both downgrades.”

    Another major issue currently is underfunded pensions.

    The City of Chicago also has a suffering credit rating.

  • Corn Dog Aficionado

    This is what happens when you let public unions dictate policy behind closed doors.

  • Trust me, if unions could unilaterally dictate where money was going in Illinois, more highway outlays would not be their first priority. They’d start with the pension mess and move on from there through schools and public employee working conditions.

  • I’ve often wondered if Chicago would be better served with a Republican governor that felt like they had to kiss up to Chicago area voters rather than a Democrat who felt like they had to kiss up to rural and exurb voters. (Of course, their party affiliations have little to do with their actual policies, they all kind of suck.)

  • Brad Kort

    I’m a Republican, and I think this governor is busy wasting money on road projects at the expense of transit. The Illiana Expressway is a waste of a $1B that should have been spent on transit.

    Why is he spending so much now on road projects? He needs money for his campaign, and road builders and their unions contribute LOTS to him.

    Rauner probably couldn’t be worse than Quinn on transit. Quinn has not delivered for transit at all.

  • Brad Kort

    They pretty much have won on pensions. On schools they’re fighting hard even though they’ve utterly failed students. The public sector unions have kicked taxpayers butts for years, and will continue to do so, as long as Democrats control everything.

  • Brad Kort

    Pensions are the reasons for the downgrades. They’re underfunded and excessive. The Democrats who control the state have failed year after year to accomplish anything to change it – except increase taxes. Thanks governor Quinnochio.

  • R.A. Stewart

    I see the point, but I’m not so sure the next Republican governor will be in the mold of Jim Thompson or Jim Edgar. I’m thinking more the Scott Walker type who will feel like they have to kick Chicago voters even harder.

  • BlueFairlane

    I think Rauner would definitely try to be Scott Walker, but with a much less friendly legislature. Ultimately, I think it’s a wash, and we continue with roughly the same sort of gridlock we have now.

  • Yeah, it’s not the most well reasoned point but, Quinn is pretty much terrible. I’m just not sure how much worse a Republican governor would really be for Chicago.

  • Nathanael

    Blech! Surely these funds could be better spent on CREATE:

    http://www.createprogram.org/

  • Nathanael

    Illnois’s flat income tax — which never, ever goes up — is a drag on the credit rating. NY has equally corrupt unions, even more unaccountable quangos (“authorities”) which make money disappear, endless bond issuances for routine operations, and a better credit rating.

    Why? Partly because NY has a progressive income tax which collects extra from the rich. Good way to raise money, since the rich are where the money is and they can affod it, whereas taxing the middle class and poor can hurt the economy.

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