Illinois’ crumbling infrastructure represents the best opportunity to rebuild the state’s struggling communities.
To fund the program, the state planned to rely on bond proceeds and revenue from increased taxes, fees and gambling. But that was before the Governor predicted that COVID-19 will leave Illinois with a $7 billion budget shortfall over the next two years. Although Congress is being pressed to pass an aid package to help all the states meet their continuing obligations as their revenues slide, it’s likely that Rebuild Illinois will need to be revamped.
Meanwhile, President Donald Trump, reviving a 2016 campaign pledge to ramp up construction projects, has promoted the idea that a $2 trillion infrastructure package should be part of Congress’s ambitious response to the coronavirus pandemic. Although Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senator Chuck Schumer have also called for infrastructure spending to mitigate the outbreak’s effects, it’s probably unrealistic to expect Congress to come together around mammoth investments in our surface, rail, water, broadband and community infrastructure while COVID-19 remains an intractable challenge.
Still, the time is right for our state’s policymakers to reimagine Rebuild Illinois as the catalyst of a national recovery plan, one that lifts up every city and state as President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration lifted Chicago and the country out of the Great Depression.
Rebuild Illinois 2.0 should reflect the reality that successfully expanding and repairing our aging infrastructure will demand faithful coordination among all our stakeholders – governments at every level, the private sector and impacted communities. Assuming Illinois embraces a transparent, data-driven, outcome-based process, the state can lead the way.
As things stand, the Rebuild Illinois Act would include $1.25 billion in funding for such hard-to-justify projects as pickleball courts and renovations to a shuttered theater. Illinois must ensure that tax receipts dedicated to infrastructure improvements are efficiently put to work for the public good and not diverted to legislators’ pet priorities. Only after the state diligently evaluates the burdens and benefits of each proposed use of funds can it make a credible business case that a project is cost-effective and meets the needs of local communities.
But infrastructure isn’t only about financial investments in physical structures; no less important, it’s about social investments in the people who create them. Illinois’ reformed infrastructure initiative should include workforce development strategies that break down structural and geographic barriers to employment. And it should support apprenticeship programs and establish equitable training, recruitment and promotion criteria.
Illinois’ crumbling infrastructure represents the best opportunity to rebuild the state’s struggling communities. Let’s lead by example and emerge from the COVID-19 crisis with a greater commitment to a stronger, more equitable economy.
Marc J. Lane is a Chicago attorney and financial adviser and vice chair of the Cook County Commission on Social Innovation.
Reprinted from Marc Lane's May 4, 2020 editorial which appeared in Crain's Chicago Business. Crain Communication Inc.'s permission is gratefully acknowledged. Copyright © 2020 by Crain’s Communications Inc.
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