Illinois Governor Pat Quinn Tuesday set in motion more than $1.6 billion in new transportation projects, an effort his office says will create 20,000 jobs and relieve both vehicle and rail traffic congestion across the state.
The measure also invests nearly $800 million in additional state funds to help relieve one of the country's worst railway bottlenecks in and around the Chicago area, one that has been blamed for freight delays coast to coast.
The bill Quinn signed Tuesday passed the legislature in May. It reauthorized a $31 billion capital construction program originally passed in 2009. The new measure authorized another $1.6 billion in bonds and will fund more than $817 million in new highway projects. More than $93 million is slated for projects in the Chicago area.
In signing the expansive bill, Quinn touted both the practical and economic benefits of the project.
“Three years ago, we passed the largest capital construction program in Illinois history to put people to work repairing roads, bridges and transit systems across our state,” Quinn said in a statement after signing the bill. “Today's law ensures that Illinois will continue moving forward.”
The new transportation projects come as both Illinois and the Chicago metro area continue to struggle with unemployment higher than the national average. In May, the state's unemployment rate was 8.6 percent, about the same as the past three months, but an improvement over the 9.7 percent rate it was in May 2011. Still, the current rate is higher than the U.S. average, which was 8.2 percent in May.
The Chicago metropolitan area's most recent unemployment rate was a comparable 8.6 percent, although it was slightly higher in Cook County, which includes Chicago.
But beyond general economic development, the Quinn proposal aims to stimulate an industry that state analysts predicted would lose jobs this year: heavy construction in general and civil engineering.
According to projections, the state's construction industry is expected to finish this year with about 3,000 more construction jobs than it had in 2010. But most of those gains (more than 3,500) have come from specialty trade contractors. Heavy construction and civil engineering, meanwhile, is projected to finish this year with about 1,100 fewer jobs than it had in 2010.
The Quinn initiative, though, could have broader benefits for transportation — in Illinois and for cross-country freight traffic — especially if some of the rail improvements relieve congestion around the Chicago area, a bottleneck that has become notorious for slowing the flow of freight around the country.
As The New York Times reported in May, the congestion on railways in and around Chicago is among the worst in the country, and Amtrak says it has more delays in the city than anywhere else in the country.
As the paper said then, one recent trainload of sulfur took 27 hours to pass through the city, which means it was traveling about 1.13 miles per hour. Nearly a quarter of all U.S. rail traffic touches Chicago on routes destined for all regions of the country.
Federal, state and local officials are also engaged in a separate, multiyear $3.2 billion endeavor to update Chicago's rail systems to ease the congestion. The bill signed Tuesday provides nearly $800 million in new state funding toward those efforts for the 2013 fiscal year.