Most of Illinois' stimulus money spent, but projects still in progress

Published: Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2013 9:45 a.m. CDT

(MCT) — Before Barack Obama even had lifted his hand off the Bible at his presidential inauguration four years ago, government officials across Illinois had started to compile their dream lists.

City planners and state transportation officials scrambled to identify virtually every "shovel ready" project they could think of, in hopes of bringing their blueprints to life through the federal stimulus package that the new home-state commander in chief soon would steer through Congress.

Four years and $840 billion later, much of the stimulus provided by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act has been spent, but some projects — like the nation's economy — remain a work in progress.

As Obama embarks on his second term, more than one-quarter of the stimulus money awarded to Illinois for specific projects has yet to be spent, according to the most recent federal figures.

Illinois ranked fourth among states in receiving nearly $12 billion in grants, contracts and loans for projects ranging from new roads and repaved runways to research grants and faster rail lines. Billions more were funneled to Illinois through entitlement benefits and tax credits.

In Springfield, state transportation officials say they were granted all of the shovel-ready projects they sought, and enough of them came in under estimated prices that more were added.

But the story at most Illinois village and city halls was a different one: Many projects were sought, but only a few were funded and not always at the requested price.

Will County, for example, asked for $20 million for sewer and water upgrades, new roads and sidewalks, and street lighting for the Ridgewood community near Joliet. For decades, the area had been plagued with raw sewage running down roads and bubbling up in the parking lot of a local grade school, County Executive Larry Walsh said.

U.S. Department of Transportation officials charged with doling out the stimulus cash for such infrastructure projects ultimately sent Will County $6.5 million — enough to fix the water and sewer problems but far short of the county's full vision.

"We had Cadillac plans and settled for Chevrolet results," Walsh said. "If we could have gotten the money, we would have done all that, but at the end of the day, we have ... fresh water and good sewer lines and the environmental problems have been taken care of."

Most of the $840 billion in federal stimulus was spent in three major areas:

•$241.2 billion paid into entitlements such as unemployment insurance and Medicaid grants to the state.

•$290.7 billion to cover tax benefits such as those for first-time homeowners, and income tax credits.

•$248.2 billion for contracts, grants and loans to pay for specific projects, ranging from infrastructure development to funding to help stabilize state education budgets.

The Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board, the federal panel charged with tracking stimulus dollars, could not provide a total breakdown for how much Illinois received in tax benefits and entitlement money, said spokesman Edward Pound.

But the state's cut in contracts, grants and loans for projects totaled $11.9 billion, according to federal figures, which ranked it behind only California, New York and Texas. Measure that total per capita, and Illinois ranked 22nd among all states, receiving $921 per citizen, according to the figures.

So far, Illinois has spent $8.64 billion of that stimulus money, according to data through Sept. 30, the most recent available.

That means while 72 percent of stimulus money awarded to Illinois has been spent, another 28 percent has yet to be used to cover projects.

Statewide, 67 percent of Illinois stimulus projects were listed as completed, 27 percent as more than 50 percent complete, 4 percent as less than 50 percent complete and 2 percent as "not started."

Pound, however, cautioned that those numbers could be affected by delays in federal reports filled out by recipients of the money and subcontractors often hired to complete the work.

"Clearly, more of this development probably has been done by now," said Pound, adding that totals including reports through the end of the year would be released by the end of January. "I can't imagine there is this much still hanging out there."

High-speed rail gets funds

Much of the state's unspent stimulus money is tied to major railroad upgrades and expansions, said Illinois Transportation Secretary Ann Schneider.

The largest single infrastructure grant Illinois received was $1.1 billion to upgrade railroad tracks and purchase train cars for high-speed passenger rail service between Chicago and St. Louis.

Schneider said that while construction on the tracks themselves was completed recently, workers still have work to do on signals and side tracks that would allow passenger and freight cars to pass one another. The $268 million to buy train cars also has not been spent yet.

IDOT also has just started construction on the $126 million Englewood Flyover project that will separate the grades of two major railroad crossings on the South Side, and the state has yet to spend most of the $177 million to make high-speed upgrades to railroad tracks between the Quad Cities and Chicago.

Between state and local stimulus projects awarded by the U.S. Department of Transportation, IDOT has administered more than $900 million in road projects.

"On the highways, I'd say we have obligated 99 percent of the funding available to us," Schneider said. "It's the high-speed rail grants that are the big ones that have affected those numbers on what has not been spent."

Schneider said all of the state's highway requests were funded. He said the state was successful because it began work in anticipation of a stimulus program four months before Obama was sworn in as president.

Another asset for Illinois: U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood is a former congressman from Peoria. Federal Railroad Administrator Joseph Szabo also is an Illinois native.

"Having the secretary of transportation from Illinois and the federal rail administrator from Illinois sure may have helped," Schneider said, "but I think the bigger part of this was that we were ready."

While state transportation officials say they received virtually all of the funding they sought, it's unclear how Chicago fared.

The administration of Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who was President Obama's chief of staff when the stimulus package was approved, could not produce a list of transportation infrastructure projects then-Mayor Richard M. Daley requested in 2009.

At that time, as the Tribune reported, Daley was offering few details about the city's requests. He did say he would seek $50 million for the expansion of O'Hare International Airport, but the city did not receive that money. It was granted $12 million for runway concrete work and the widening of a taxiway at O'Hare.

Emanuel's administration did release a list of stimulus projects the city ultimately received, including 76 awards totaling $513 million. Those projects ranged from neighborhood stabilization grants and homelessness prevention to the resurfacing of arterial roads throughout the city and the reconstruction of Congress Parkway.

While it's unclear how many of Chicago's stimulus requests were fulfilled, a survey of several suburban communities found that most did not receive funding for many projects they sought.

Schaumburg, for example, requested funding for a westbound exit ramp from the Jane Addams Tollway (Interstate 90) to Meacham Road. That request was denied, but village officials are considering constructing the ramp through funding from a special tax district in the area and splitting the cost with the Illinois State Toll Highway Authority.

Schaumburg did, however, receive three stimulus grants totaling $1 million, money that helped pay for repairs to Wright Boulevard and Rodenburg Road and various energy efficiency projects, Village Manager Ken Fritz said.

Hoffman Estates had most of its $11 million wish list rejected, including a $4 million water tower that the village ultimately built after issuing a bond. The northwest suburb did receive about $700,000 for various energy efficiency projects, including a new roof for Village Hall and energy audits for homeowners.

In Niles, a denied stimulus request left the village suffering through extensive flooding in 2010 and 2011, said Steven Vinezeano, the village's acting manager.

The northwestern Cook County suburb requested $15 million in flood mitigation funding but didn't get a penny of it. Instead it got $100,000 in energy efficiency grants.

Last year, village officials raised the sales tax by a quarter of a percent to help pay for the needed upgrades to prevent flooding.

"For some reason, they focus on what you can see, like roads and bridges, and not enough on what you can't see, like water and sewer systems," Vinezeano said of the stimulus grants. "There's a lot of business going on below."

In some cases, even though a city or village did not receive funding for a major project, it got completed anyway.

Naperville did not land the $126 million in stimulus money it needed to widen State Route 59 from four to six lanes and to improve an overpass over the Ronald Reagan Memorial Tollway, but those projects since have been taken up by IDOT, city officials said.

Orland Park received $1.1 million in stimulus money for road, bike path and energy efficiency projects but did not receive funding for the critical improvement of two LaGrange Road intersections, said spokesman Joe LaMargo. Instead, he said, IDOT completed those projects.

While most of the projects in Illinois have been finished and some are under construction, the most recent federal data listed 2 percent of Illinois stimulus projects as "not started."

But a survey by the Tribune of 10 such listed projects suggested that much of that information is incorrect. All of them were either in progress, completed, canceled or paid for through a different funding source.

One of those "not started" projects reflected the decision of officials in Rolling Meadows to return $1.2 million for a new fire station because they did not want to foot the remaining cost of the facility, citing slumping revenue caused by the recession.

A project to repair ductwork at the Jesse Brown VA Medical Center in Chicago also was listed as "not started" on the federal stimulus board's website, recovery.gov, even though it was finished more than two years ago, according to the company contracted for the job.

"It's a government website — what do you expect?" said Thomas Cannon, owner of Cannon Management Group, a construction firm on Chicago's Near North Side.

Cannon, a Navy veteran who was injured during the Persian Gulf War, said that other than that error his company's work went smoothly on the veterans affairs center and another stimulus project his company was awarded. Both jobs were set aside for small businesses owned by disabled veterans, a program Cannon said has enabled him to rapidly grow the company he started a couple of years ago with $1,000.

"It was basically just me and my brother around the kitchen table," he said. "Now we're up to almost 20 employees."

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