Getting rid of potholes can be good politics.
Next year will be a true test of that old axiom here in Illinois.
President Biden’s newly enacted infrastructure package contains nearly $18 billion for the state, and Illinois could get a crack at billions of dollars more for new roads, public transit, aging water lines and high-speed internet for poor urban and rural areas.
The landmark, $1.2 trillion package is the most expensive federal bricks-and-mortar program since the late 1970s. And it follows the 2019 enactment of the $45 billion Rebuild Illinois infrastructure program that is one of Gov. JB Pritzker’s signature accomplishments.
With the Land of Lincoln soon to be awash in infrastructure money, expect Pritzker and other Democrats to dangle projects across the state during what could be a potentially treacherous 2022 campaign cycle. It could be one of the best things Democrats have going.
Biden’s own approval ratings are far under water, and voters have shown growing unrest at the party’s handling of the economy, its inability to stop the pandemic and its infighting that has yoked Washington with inertia for much of the year. There are forecasts of a Republican rout across the country.
That all carries potential implications on Democrats’ electoral fate in deep-blue Illinois.
To the extent Biden’s Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act is something Democrats want to crow about, what Illinois will get from it is only beginning to trickle out.
Roads, trains and more roads
At a stop in Rockford last week, Pritzker began showcasing the new law’s reach. One thing some of the new federal money could do is accelerate construction of a proposed 80-mile Amtrak line that would re-establish passenger rail service between Chicago and Rockford, he said.
“Now that we have dollars coming to Illinois from the federal infrastructure bill…that helps to speed up all of the projects we have on what’s called our multi-year plan,” the governor said. “This is just one of them and an important one, I might add.”
Illinois House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch, D-Hillside, and Senate President Don Harmon, D-Oak Park, have called for $2.7 billion of the state’s share of infrastructure dollars to go toward a rebuild of the Eisenhower Expressway from Racine Avenue in Chicago to Wolf Road in Hillside.
“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reconnect communities, repair injuries and displacement, and make a difference,” Harmon posted on Facebook.
Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot echoed the sentiment that the federal infrastructure package will finally put dollars behind numerous long-awaited projects in Chicago. The mayor’s priorities include replacing hundreds of thousands of toxic lead service lines that bring water to Chicago residents, and an estimated $2.3 billion project to extend the Red Line train so it serves the city’s southern-most neighborhoods.
“This is really the first time that we’re going to actually see the opportunities to take the plans off the drawing board, and to put them into action,” Lightfoot said of the Red Line project. “We’ve had plans, there have been designs, but this will really kickstart, I think, the construction.”
Pritzker’s office and congressional sources have begun circulating other examples of projects that now appear to be a sizable step closer to reality because of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.
They include a $516 million reconstruction of the I-190 expressway into and out of O’Hare International Airport from Bessie Coleman Drive to I-90.
And in Will County, federal infrastructure dollars will go toward the $1.1 billion reconstruction of 16 miles of I-80 from Ridge Road to Lincoln Highway. Replacement of the Des Plaines River bridge along I-80 is part of that project, as well.
Illinois is due $4 billion during the next five years for mass transit. That could mean new buses and rail cars for the Chicago Transit Authority, Metra and Pace, the suburban bus system. The transit systems also will have resources to modernize stations and tracks and improve accessibility.
Additionally, in Chicago, the federal program is expected to include funds for modernization of the CTA’s Red and Purple lines, capacity expansion of the Blue Line to O’Hare, and the Red Line South extension, a federal source outlined.
Water lines, water debt and e-offerings
The federal package also earmarks $1.7 billion to Illinois to repair or replace aging water lines with a particular focus on replacing lead service lines and pipes. No other city has more lead service lines than Chicago, and the problem is prominent in other areas, including south suburban University Park.
On Thursday, Chicago Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez (25th) called for some of that clean-water allotment to go toward helping address exorbitant and delinquent water bills in Black and Latino neighborhoods. A WBEZ investigation earlier this month shed light on the dilemma.
Sigcho-Lopez said his aldermanic office in Pilsen, for months, has been trying to resolve what he characterized as “egregious” water bill debts for residents or businesses that are as high as $40,000. That debt has been caused by city billing errors, water leaks and aggressive collection tactics by the city.
“We have worked and tried to work with the Water Management department [and] the mayor’s office, trying to get a solution, maybe some relief. But when we see that we are not making progress, I do think it is important to act now that we have federal funding coming to the city,” he told WBEZ.
“With $1 billion federal funding coming in, we certainly can start addressing some of the issues we see so people don’t deal with these issues of water debt,” he said.
The federal infrastructure package also means millions of dollars will be bound for Illinois to protect against cyberattacks, to continue offering high-speed internet to the poor and even to guard against wildfires.
And nearly $150 million will come to the state during the next five years to create an electric vehicle charging network, something that supplements the governor’s stated goal of putting 1 million electric vehicles on Illinois roads by 2030.
If some of this looks familiar …
Illinois’ plans for where it will spend fed money may look somewhat familiar. That’s because Pritzker’s administration has already prioritized many of the places the federal infrastructure money will go through its Rebuild Illinois program, pushed through two years ago, and the Illinois Department of Transportation’s multiyear road construction plan.
Pritzker’s administration says that new money will allow them to move ahead on promised projects, and perhaps even expand them.
“Illinois is ready to utilize federal infrastructure funds almost immediately thanks to the work already underway on the state’s historic Rebuild Illinois capital plan,” Pritzker spokeswoman Jordan Abudayyeh said.
“IDOT has compiled projects for the years ahead in the multi-year plan that federal funds can be immediately plugged into while additional dollars will allow the state to continue expanding the scope of projects we can do in years ahead,” she said.
Some Republicans opposed the plan, but their districts stand to benefit
So far, since its enactment, there hasn’t been state-specific public polling to gauge the mood of Illinoisans toward the infrastructure package.
But Democrats clearly see it as an important part of the state party’s messaging heading into the 2022 campaign cycle, where polling and other forecasts hint at a potential Republican wave election that could even sweep into Illinois. A Thursday tweet about the federal package from the Democratic Party of Illinois carried the hashtag “#ILDemsDeliver.”
Polling in late September by Morning Consult and Politico found that 56% of registered voters in the Midwest backed the package while 29% opposed it. Nationally, 77% of Democrats favored it compared to just 37% among Republicans.
Four of the state’s five Republican representatives voted against the package earlier this month. The only GOP vote of support within the state delegation came from U.S. Rep. Adam Kinzinger, of Channahon.
And yet, some of those same congressional opponents will see their districts wind up on the winning end of the new infrastructure package’s largesse.
In southern Illinois, for example, some of the new federal infrastructure dollars would fund expansion and bridge reconstruction along Interstate 57. It’s a $188 million project that will add new lanes and replace bridges along a 25-mile stretch of I-57 from Mt. Vernon south.
That section of interstate, which is a heavily used freight corridor in the state’s southern third, lies in a newly configured congressional district where incumbent Republican U.S. Reps. Mike Bost and Mary Miller now reside. The two lawmakers, who could meet in the GOP primary next June, opposed the infrastructure package.
On the same day as the U.S. House vote, Miller, of Oakland, turned to Twitter to castigate Kinzinger and others in her party for supporting a clear legislative win for Biden: “Only 3 days after voters rejected Biden’s failed policies in deep blue VA & NJ, 13 spineless ‘Republicans’ decided to tag-team with Democrats and helped pass their $5 TRILLION socialist takeover of our country. I will always stand for our conservative, America First agenda!”
Neither she nor Bost, of Murphysboro, responded to WBEZ inquiries about how they reconcile their “no” votes with the fact their potential congressional district will see nearly $200 million — at least — worth of investment from the package.
Pritzker’s office, however, launched a broadside against Illinois Republicans who voted against the bi-partisan deal.
“It is unfortunate that the representatives of downstate communities voted against critical infrastructure funding that will improve safety and efficiency of the roads and bridges their constituents rely on,” Abudayyeh said. “The governor believes public service requires putting the people you serve over politics and is focused on restoring infrastructure and creating jobs in every region of the state ensuring communities get the infrastructure upgrades they need.”
Extension of Red Line and a “hallelujah moment”
One of those regions could be Chicago’s far South Side.
Democratic U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush, of Chicago, said he and others have fought for 25 years to rid that neglected part of the city of its unwelcome status as a “transit desert,” where Black residents have had to travel miles to hop on a CTA train car. The Red Line stops at 95th Street, and the city’s southernmost boundary ends nearly 40 blocks away at 138th Street.
The Biden infrastructure deal could put that $2.3 billion project on the front burner, and Rush did his part to turn up the heat.
An invitee to Biden’s bill-signing last week, the 15-term congressman hand-delivered a letter to Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, advocating that infrastructure dollars be routed to the extension. The project still needs federal sign-off, but Rush said he’s feeling optimistic about its prospects.
“It’s a tremendous blessing to all of those who have over the years really suffered because of the inability to use public transportation to attend church services or religious services, to shop, to be connected with the downtown universities and cultural activities,” Rush told WBEZ.
“This is really a hallelujah moment for my constituents,” he said.
WBEZ’s Chicago government reporter Mariah Woelfel contributed.
Dave McKinney covers Illinois politics and government for WBEZ. Follow him @davemckinney.