Illinois transportation infrastructure requires modernization, innovation

While the state will have significant revenue to improve our infrastructure thanks to this legislation, Illinois does not have a plan in place to strategically address our challenges.

Illinois has been slow to embrace performance-based decision-making—a technical term for using objective performance measures and data to transparently choose which transportation projects to fund—and is overdue in adopting new plans and policies to direct transportation investments toward the projects with the greatest benefits. Many of our state and local methods for allocating transportation funds, choosing projects and building them have not changed in decades. We shouldn’t be surprised that these antiquated systems have failed to deliver on a vision of equitable, livable, environmentally sustainable and economically vibrant communities.

The Illinois Department of Transportation and other local transportation agencies need to design modern performance management systems and consult with employers and organizations on the front lines of economic development as they stand up these systems. Additionally, transportation projects prioritized for funding should be consistent with goals identified in statewide and regional plans.

By adopting an open project selection process that includes input from the public and private sector, we can foster accountability and trust and deliver the results our residents deserve. This is even more important given news reports of indictments and criminal investigations related to transportation spending.

Taking this action will also assist leaders as they address the new challenges the state of Illinois and Chicago’s business community are facing amid the COVID-19 pandemic. This public health crisis will have a lasting impact on the way we work and travel. We must take this into account when planning transportation and infrastructure developments so Chicago’s business community can create new jobs for its residents and rebuild our economy, which serves as the economic engine for the entire Midwest.

IDOT laid the groundwork for such a process in 2017, and the region’s transit agencies have signaled their interest in performance-based project selection. Further, state legislation was introduced earlier this year to address this very issue.

Lastly, our state needs to modernize how we build projects. Illinois is just one of four other states that prohibit combining the design and building of transportation projects into one simplified process. This design-build approach has been used for decades in other states to save time, something that could have benefited the over-budget and delayed Jane Byrne Interchange. It is not too late, however, to reap these benefits on upcoming megaprojects like the I-190 and I-80 projects.

Now is the time to adopt new ideas that will reshape investments, strengthen our economy and build resilience to the crises we face today and will face in the future. Transportation is more important to Illinois and its economy than any other state, as it serves to transform the many challenges we face into opportunities for an equitable recovery.

MarySue Barrett is president of the Metropolitan Planning Council. Jack Lavin is president and CEO of the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce. Kelly R. Welsh is president of the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club of Chicago.

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