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Backers seek quick approval for state road projects

SPRINGFIELD – 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. They 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 was a $175 million infusion of federal money after Congress adopted a new national transit strategy last summer. Another $500 million of state money has come in, partly from healthy motor-fuel tax revenues and previous transportation projects that ended up costing less than lawmakers budgeted.

"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.

But it's a tougher sell in a state that has more than $9 billion in overdue bills and a pension system that has outstanding liabilities of $96 billion. Gov. Pat Quinn's budget office on Wednesday postponed a sale 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 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 public complaint about the road money, but because of concerns about funding going to or being withheld from other interests such as public schools or horse racing.

Senate President John Cullerton said at the time it was merely a matter of working through everyone's concerns and lawmakers can adopt a supplemental "any time."

Mike Claffey, a spokesman for the Illinois Department of Transportation, which supports the increased road work, said officials solicit bids on construction projects beginning in March. The clock is ticking on legislative action and the paperwork that precedes it.

Quinn's office said besides the transportation allocation, the governor is most concerned about transferring $25 million to protect the jobs of child-welfare workers and $12 million for mental health programs in the Department of Human Services.

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