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Backers seek quick approval for Ill. road projects

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (AP) — Legislators have $675 million in unanticipated money available to spend on Illinois transit projects but must act quickly if they want to see road-graders moving this spring, supporters said Thursday.

In Illinois, where financial news has rarely been rosy in recent years, backers of roads projects have difficulty understanding the holdup. The money isn’t exactly free, but it comes at no additional cost to taxpayers.

Contractors for road-building and bridge repair are hired for the warm-weather construction season beginning in March, officials said, so the window to add projects financed with the nearly no-strings money is sliding shut.

There’s a $175 million infusion of federal money after Congress adopted a new national transit strategy last summer. Another $500 million of state money is available this year, from healthy motor-fuel tax revenues, previous transportation projects that ended up costing less than budgeted and work scheduled for later years that could be bumped up.

“In the political vernacular, this should be a no-brainer,” said Doug Whitley, president of the Illinois Chamber of Commerce and a member of the Transportation for Illinois Coalition. “The program’s in place. The money needs to be reallocated. The General Assembly just has to give it the green light.”

Supporters worry that if the road projects are lumped in with other financial needs in a supplemental appropriation — legislation to shore up various parts of state government that are running short of funds before the June 30 close of the budget year — they might not get immediate attention.

“We can accomplish two things here,” said Rep. Anthony DeLuca, a Chicago Heights Democrat. “There are projects worthy of getting done and we have people who are unemployed.”

Gov. Pat Quinn is in favor of the transportation money. But he also is seeking approval to spend $25 million saved from closing correctional facilities in the Department of Children and Family Services to prevent layoffs of child-welfare agents. Another $12 million would be used to restore mental health grants reduced earlier this year and to pay bills this year instead of pushing them off to the fall.

And spending — regardless of the revenue source — potentially faces a perception snag in a state that has more than $9 billion in overdue bills and a pension system that has outstanding liabilities of $96 billion.

Quinn’s budget office on postponed a sale Wednesday of $500 million in bonds — money borrowed for future school and road projects — because officials feared paying higher interest rates since a rating agency downgraded the state’s credit rating against last week.

Still, supporters thought it would be a smooth path for the transit allocation until it got hung up in a Senate committee just after the New Year, in the final days of the last legislative session. The measure was defeated not because of any concrete complaint, but because of concerns about funding going to or being withheld from other interests such as public schools or horse racing.

The Illinois Department of Transportation solicits bids on construction projects beginning in March, spokesman Mike Claffey said. The clock is ticking on legislative action and the paperwork that precedes it. Work is eligible for the bid-list if its engineering plans are finished and any necessary federal approval is secured.

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