Illinois Gov. Quinn announces $6.4 million infrastructure investment

Construction stopped for an hour at the corner of Race and Main streets in downtown Urbana on Monday morning, though only for an announcement that more construction is on its way.

Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn announced a $6.4 million investment in transportation infrastructure for eastern Illinois at a speech in Urbana on Monday, including $1.4 million for projects in Champaign County. The investment is through Quinn’s $31 billion Illinois Jobs Now! construction program that was passed in 2009. 

This is the fourth year of the five-year program, which will offer almost $500 million dollars to local governments in Illinois for transportation construction. The money allows local governments to make their own decisions about what to invest the funds in, and it comes in addition to money that local governments will receive from a Motor Fuel Tax, Quinn said.

The announcement comes at a time when Illinois’ unemployment rate is second highest in the nation at 9.2 percent, second to only Nevada, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Champaign County’s unemployment rate is 8.4 percent, while nearby Vermillion County, home to Danville, and Macon County, home to Decatur, have rates of 11.3 percent and 12.0 percent respectively according to the Illinois Department of Employment Security. 

Quinn said investment in infrastructure not only helps create construction jobs but also benefits other businesses.

“Illinois is in the heart of the heartland,” he said. “We are the distribution center for all of the Midwest and all across North America, frankly. And in order for us to do that well, we’ve got to have good transportation and that means local streets, as well as our state highways and our bridges. We have to commit ourselves to do that.”

Illinois Transportation Secretary Ann Schneider said more than $750,000 has been given to Urbana as a part of the project, both improving quality of life and creating jobs for residents.

Champaign Mayor Don Gerard was present at the announcement. He said Champaign, which is set to receive $326,804 from the announced funds, has over $50 million in ongoing construction projects, most of which comes from private investments. 

“We’re fantastically pleased that the governor is taking care of us in this arena,” Gerard said. “We fully expect as we come out of the recession, as the economy recovers, that we will have an immense return on our investments, and we’re grateful to have a few extra dollars to put into that.”

Quinn said the original bill is “only scratching the surface” of what could be done, and he expects a new public works bill next year.

“We’ve never invested so much money in transportation, but we have more to do,” he said.

The Champaign and Urbana communities benefited from the original project in more than just roads and bridges, Quinn said. Since the project’s inception, funds have been given to the University to help with the renovation of Lincoln Hall and the construction of the new Electrical and Computer Engineering Building, as well as upgrades to Willard Airport. Quinn said he would expect more investment in education in the next bill.

“We have to invest in education, to make sure we have strong minds, and infrastructure, so we have strong bridges and roads,” Quinn said.

When Quinn announced it was time for questions from the press, many concerned retirees in the crowd used the opportunity to ask the governor about pension reform.

One retiree complained that the state was abandoning its former employees. He said the entire state benefited from the diversion of funds away from pension benefits, so the entire state should have to pay to help restore it.

Quinn responded calmly, acknowledging the concerns and why the retirees were upset.

“The people who did the work and are on the front lines, I’m really sympathetic to,” Quinn said. “I didn’t create this. I inherited this. I just became governor four years ago, 40 years before me governors and legislators didn’t put enough into the pension funds, and what do you do about that? Well, you have to straighten it out and that’s what I’m doing.”

Quinn, who has not taken a paycheck since July 1 to protest the lack of pension reform, said it is the state’s top priority.

“The best way to help our economy and jobs is to resolve this $100 billion liability and pension cloud over the economy of Illinois,” he said.

Johnathan can be reached at [email protected] and @jhett93.