Standing in front of packed room at the Gateway Commerce Center, Acting Illinois Department of Transportation Secretary Randy Blankenhorn listened to people call for maintaining public transit funding and funding projects that help alleviate traffic congestion.
People in attendance brought up the need for multi-modal transportation systems, helping move through project paperwork quicker and getting funding for local projects to communities faster. Keeping up with building needs at Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville as programs grow and investing in road projects that help promote tourism also were items that were suggested.
“This tour is about listening; it’s about hearing from the public, from the business community, from our community leaders, about why investment in transportation is important,” Blankenhorn said.
Blankenhorn didn’t speak about specific projects during the listening session.
“You have to be able to talk about that bigger picture, you got to talk about the investment first before you talk about which projects,” Blankenhorn said. “We know there are a lot of projects out there. There’s people who want very important projects to them in their communities. We’ll get to that conversation, but I think we needed to have this larger conversation first about why. Why should we ask the taxpayer to invest more money in our infrastructure?”
Blackenhorn added the state has funding challenges and said the state needs to have a better way of paying for transportation needs in a pay-as-you go fashion rather than in “boom and bust” cycles.
“We need to have a conversation about sustainable growing revenue sources that manage our transportation system in the future,” Blackenhorn said.
State Sen. Kyle McCarter, R-Lebanon, Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville Chancellor Julie Furst-Bowe, and Oates Associates President Bruce Schopp were part of a panel discussion.
McCarter brought up the need of eliminating bottlenecks in the road system, such as building the proposed Lebanon Bypass taking a priority over smoother roads.
Furst-Bowe spoke about the importance of high-speed rail between the metro-east and Chicago and a good road system within Illinois because students are coming to SIUE from around the state.
SJ Morrison from Madison County Transit urged state officials to maintain transit funding, which has been proposed to be cut as part of the FY 2016 budget.
“Public transportation grows the economy because it creates access to jobs,” Morrison said. “Without transportation, without transit, people can’t get to jobs; they can’t make money, can’t spend money; they can’t pay taxes. If we want to grow the economy, expand the economy, it’s critical we have quality public transportation.”
Cathy Contarino, the executive director for the Impact Center for Independent Living in Alton, said public transportation is very important for people with disabilities.
“It is our lifeline,” Contarino said. “Many people with disabilities rely on public transportation. If we don’t have that or service is reduced, it would limit their ability to live in the communities.”
Dale Stewart, executive secretary of the Southwestern Illinois Building Trades Council, took the opportunity to defend the prevailing wage rules, which have been criticized by Gov. Bruce Rauner as driving up the cost of public projects.
“Prevailing wage gives contractors a fair wage to negotiate and workout and charge as far as the project,” Stewart said. “The governor is going around telling everybody, the prevailing wage is costing everyone 25 to 30 percent more. I want somebody to explain that to me, when the amount of man hours we work on a project are minimal compared to the price of materials, everything a contractor has to put in place.”
Randall Harris, director of the Midwest Region of Laborers-Employers Cooperation and Education, asked that transportation road funding split between the Chicago area and the downstate communities be maintained. Downstate communities received 55 percent of the road funding.
“Remember downstate has 75 to 80 percent of the highways, and roads and bridges in the state,” Harris said.
IDOT plans to use information from the listening tour meetings to present a package of recommendations to state elected officials later this spring.
“We will prepare a report for the governor and the general assembly basically summarizing what we’ve heard,” Blankenhorn said. “We can tell the governor, we can tell the general assembly this is what people of Illinois think, what people of your district think. Here’s where we need to think about a long-term prognosis of how we fix transportation.”