EAST ST. LOUIS — With next year's gubernatorial race already simmering, Gov. Pat Quinn made a stop here Monday to tout construction of the new Mississippi River bridge.
Quinn said the purpose of his stop was to celebrate the beginning of the $700 million project's final phase. He said it has created or supported 3,400 jobs.
"The best way to help the most people is a J-O-B, a job," the governor told a crowd of supporters, elected officials and others involved in the project.
He added, "This bridge has already made a great impact by providing thousands of jobs and boosting economic activity in the region that will continue for many years to come. In addition, our weekly average of a 26 percent minority workforce far surpasses the federal requirement and sets a record for the metro-east."
The bridge, to be officially known as the Stan Musial Veterans Memorial Bridge, is planned to open by March.
Afterward, Quinn fielded questions from reporters about his opposition to the concealed-carry gun bill, his decision to withhold legislators' pay until they come up with a plan to reform the state's pensions systems, and his standing among downstate constituents. He said the bridge project is just one example of his commitment to Southern Illinois.
"Take a look at all the construction activity. We're doing a new science building at SIU Edwardsville, a new aeronautics and automotive building at SIU Carbondale, and I'm going down to Marion right now -- we're widening I-57. In addition to this bridge, we're going to be investing $25 million in Route 3," Quinn said. "If you look at it, we've invested more money in southern Illinois than any governor."
Quinn, a Democrat facing re-election next year, already faces a handful of announced and unannounced opponents, from both parties.
On the Democratic side, former White House chief of staff Bill Daley of Chicago has announced a candidacy. There's talk, too, that downstate Democrats are looking for a possible gubernatorial candidate.
On the Republican side, state Sen. Kirk Dillard, R-Hinsdale, announced his candidacy on Monday. State Treasurer Dan Rutherford, Sen. Bill Brady of Bloomington and businessman Bruce Rauner of Chicago have already announced their plans to seek the GOP nomination.
Quinn's attempt to make the recently-enacted concealed-carry gun law more restrictive didn't sit well with some downstate constituents. One of his proposals was to ban guns in restaurants that serve any alcohol. The law currently bans guns in establishments were alcohol accounts for 50 percent or more of receipts, and Quinn on Monday, said legislators need to "revisit the issue of alcohol and guns," which he described as "a toxic mixture."
The governor said issues such as public safety, good schools and healthcare are important to voters in Southern Illinois and across the state.
"I've lived downstate. I've lived in Edwardsville, I've lived in East St. Louis. I understand Illinois like the back of my hand, and I think folks will see that in the next few weeks," he said.
Last week, Quinn announced that he was stopping the pay of legislators until they come up with a bill to reform the state pension systems, which are underfunded by about $100 billion. One reporter asked Quinn whether he has the authority to do that.
Rep. Eddie Lee Jackson, D-East St. Louis, quipped: "Good question."
Quinn said the pension problem is hurting the state's ability to borrow money at good interest rates -- thus affecting the state's ability to spend money on bridges and other projects.
"It's a principle as old as the Bible. You have to get the job done before you get your paycheck," Quinn said.
During the ceremony, Quinn paid tribute to some local leaders who were on hand, including: Jackson; Sen. James Clayborne, D-Belleville; Rep. Jay Hoffman, D-Swansea; and former Congressman Jerry Costello, D-Belleville.
Clayborne told Quinn and Costello that people of the region "truly appreciate your assistance and leadership."
Costello said the project is "great for the people of southwestern Illinois."
Hoffman spoke about how Missouri, which initially wanted the span to be a toll bridge, eventually signed onto a funding agreement, but not until after some "kicking and screaming."
Jackson told Quinn it was "important that blacks, minorities, played a part in building the bridge." Contractors receive a $10-per-hour incentive for hiring minorities who graduate from a state training program for minorities.
Illinois Department of Transportation Secretary Ann Schneider said the Poplar Street Bridge carries about 125,000 vehicles a day. "This project will help relieve that congestion," she said.
Quinn said Illinois has funded 1,170 projects involving repair or construction of bridges during his tenure.