What's in the infrastructure bill for the suburbs? Ambiguous millions, experts say
After months of negotiations, Congress finally passed a massive infrastructure package expected to be signed Monday by President Joe Biden.
Does that mean workers will soon be widening the Eisenhower Expressway while express trains rain down on Metra lines?
That's anyone's guess. An earlier version endorsed by the U.S. House was loaded with earmarks, but the final product sticks to generalities.
That's leading to "tremendous uncertainty," DePaul University transportation Professor Joe Schwieterman said.
What we do know is the five-year Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act is an ambitious plan of more than $1 trillion with $550 billion in new spending.
Over 50% is targeted for transportation, with roads and bridges getting the lion's share. Untraditional priorities include safe drinking water, broadband expansion and electric vehicle charging stations.
In comparison, the last surface transportation bill, spanning 2016 through 2020, was $305 billion.
Illinois' share includes an estimated $9.8 billion to fix highways and roads with $1.4 billion slated for bridges, and the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning projects a 32% increase in surface transportation funding alone.
Last week, state Democrats pushed for a complete redo of the Eisenhower Expressway. We asked Northwestern University engineering Professor Emeritus Joseph Schofer, would that qualify for funding?
That's unclear, but the Illinois House speaker and Senate president along with labor and union leaders support it. "They're salivating over reconstruction of the Eisenhower Expressway, so it's likely," Schofer said.
The infrastructure package also provides undesignated pots of money, such as $12.5 billion for bridge improvements and $16 billion for projects providing "economic benefits to communities." Those funds are "up for grabs," Schofer said, explaining states must compete for grants.
Public transit systems in Illinois are in line for $4 billion.
"The CTA Red and Purple Modernization and the Red Line Extension south of 95th Street appear to be 'sure things' for extensive funding," Schwieterman said. "Beyond that, things are more murky, with funds of Metra and Pace projects much harder to predict."
Amtrak, beloved by Biden, gets a windfall, and there's a good chance the CREATE project to reduce train gridlock in Chicago and the suburbs will be a beneficiary, Schofer forecast.
One sure bet is a chunk of the $616 million slotted for Illinois' airports will find its way to O'Hare and Midway international airports.
The legislation also steers $149 million to Illinois for electric vehicle charging stations, $1.7 billion to upgrade water infrastructure, and $100 million to deliver fast internet to underserved areas.
"We don't want to just maintain exactly what we already have. We want to use this money to truly make the system better," Metropolitan Planning Council Director of Transportation Audrey Wennink said.
"This bill comes at a time when we have a climate crisis, when we have an equity crisis, when we have a traffic fatality crisis, and a public health crisis. Whatever we do, we need to improve mobility, but we need to improve all of those things, too."
Who's paying for the program? Along with the federal gas tax, revenues will come from unspent COVID-19 relief dollars and unemployment benefits, delaying a Medicare Part D rebate, and profits from an auction of wireless transmission signal rights, among other sources, experts said.
While the U.S. House mainly stuck to party lines, 19 Republican senators including GOP leader Mitch McConnell voted in favor.
"With additional federal funds, Illinois is poised to capitalize on that success and continue creating jobs and economic opportunity while building a 21st-century transportation system," IDOT spokesman Guy Tridgell said.
Expect nighttime delays and lane closures Monday through Wednesday on the Tri-State Tollway (I-294) between the Hinsdale Oasis, I-55 and Plainfield Road as Illinois crews wrangle massive steel beams into place.
You should know
Starting Monday, weekly trains on Metra's BNSF Line will temporarily shrink from 94 to 86. The changes come when "ridership is low and freight traffic is elevated during global supply chain disruptions," Metra said. For information, go to metra.com.