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Officials resigned to 'bare-bones spending
By Marni Pyke | Daily Herald Staff
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Published: 5/23/2008 12:13 AM

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There were few gasps of surprise from local transportation experts Thursday as the state released a bare-bones highway improvement program.

Many had already lowered their expectations. But that didn't mean officials welcomed the fact the state will spend less on road construction in 2009 than in 2007.

"The only person that's going to benefit is Midas Muffler," said Bill Baltutis, Executive Director of the TMA of Lake-Cook, a coalition of businesses that works to improve regional transportation.

The parlous condition of state roads, particularly after a harsh winter that caused a pothole frenzy, is a growing safety hazard, Baltutis said.

And it won't get any better, because "the capital program has declined precipitously," he added.

The Illinois Department of Transportation committed $10.9 billion to its 2009-2014 highway program, with $1.95 billion set aside for 2009.

It's a stark contrast to 2001 through 2003 when the state allocated $2.3 billion annually for roads. That was in the midst of the Illinois FIRST capital program.

Now, revenues from the gas tax and vehicle registration are down while construction materials such as cement are soaring, IDOT Secretary Milton R. Sees said.

As a result, the agency is producing a maintenance budget that puts bridge repairs and highway maintenance first. IDOT has also prioritized resurfacing roads hit badly by potholes, setting aside $126 million to repair 264 miles of roads.

"We're fixing the worst first," Sees said.

In 2008, $1.88 billion was set aside for highway improvements and in 2007, that figure was $1.98 billion.

Maintenance of highways and bridges makes up 72 percent of the 2009-2014 budget while congestion mitigation is at 20 percent. System expansion is a mere 8 percent.

"If we were able to pass a capital bill, we would be able to add projects," Sees said.

IDOT identified a number of projects as "unfunded needs," including western access to O'Hare International Airport, which could total $2 billion, and an ambitious construction project at Stearns Road in Kane County.

Kane County Assistant Director of Transportation Manny Gomez said construction would continue.

"Obviously, we would like to be fully funded, but the county has been aware of the funding shortfalls," Gomez said.

In DuPage, county board member and transportation committee chairwoman Pam Rion was thankful for small mercies.

After seven years, money was promised for widening North Avenue at Route 59 near West Chicago.

"We've been waiting for that since Illinois FIRST," Rion said. "I'm grateful for that, although we hoped it would be sooner rather than later."

But transportation leaders warned that doing the minimum will come back to haunt the state -- or at least its drivers.

"The highway program is at the equivalent level of last year, which means roads and bridges will get worse," Chicago Metropolitan Area for Planning Executive Director Randy Blankenhorn said.

"When you don't do anything, a new backlog is going to continue to increase."

Rough road

Here's a look at some major local fixes the Illinois Department of Transportation is tentatively funding 2009-2014.

Can do

• Bridge replacement, improvements, engineering at I-90 and Cumberland Avenue in Cook County. $18.5 million

• Bridge replacement, reconstruction at Route 41 and Grand Avenue, Gurnee. $33 million

• Improvements on Route 22 in Lake County. $78 million

• Road widening on Route 53 north of St. Charles Road in DuPage County. $70 million

• Road widening on Butterfield Road west from Naperville Road. $71 million.

• Reconstruction, widening on North Avenue in St. Charles. $10 million

• Additional lanes on North Avenue between Route 59 and Kautz Road in DuPage. $43 million

• Route 83 widening and resurfacing in Lake Villa. $21 million.

• Des Plaines River Road reconstruction from Rand Road to Devon Avenue in Des Plaines. $50.7 million

• Widening on Wolf Road in Wheeling. $14 million

Money is doubtful

IDOT says it's short of funds for these projects.

• New bridges over the Fox River in Kane County.

• Bolz Road/Longmeadow Parkway Corridor, a congestion relief project in Kane County.

• Stearns Road Corridor in south Elgin.

• Western access to O'Hare International Airport and related infrastructure.

• Grade separation at Irving Park and York roads in Bensenville.