Pricetag for Rebuilding Ill. Expressway Doubles

Published December 1, 2006

In Illinois’ own mini-version of Boston’s Big Dig, the costs to rebuild Chicago’s Dan Ryan Expressway have nearly doubled from original estimates, to about $1 billion.

Most taxpayers and state lawmakers were unaware of the soaring costs, run up in the first four years of the five-year project, until an enterprising transportation writer for the Chicago Tribune, Jon Hilkevitch, revealed them in a September 17 article.

Long List of Reasons

Diane O’Keefe, deputy director of highways for the Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT), attributed the explosive increase to higher costs of labor and materials, and to engineering and design changes meant to improve safety. Additional costs also were incurred to satisfy “community concerns” about reduced neighborhood access to the expressway.

The original $550 million projection, cited in a 2000 state road plan, long ago was surpassed, as $800 million already has been spent on construction, design, engineering, land acquisition, and other expenses. Bids have yet to be let for further work, including final paving.

The expressway carries almost 320,000 vehicles daily on up to 14 lanes. It is better known outside of Chicago as Interstate 90/94.

IDOT, under the then-new administration of Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D), in 2003 rejected simply rebuilding the expressway to its original 40-year-old standards, opting instead for a more expansive network of bridges, ramps, and other features.

Elaborating on some of the add-ons in an interview for this article, IDOT spokesperson Mike Claffey said the newer, thicker pavement and base would have a longer life than the original. He argued the public would have been ill-served to spend a half-billion dollars on an expressway that retained the flaws of the original.

Only One Contractor

The stunning cost leap, however, again turns the spotlight onto a recurring budget issue: what oversight legislators and, ultimately, taxpayers can exercise over the costs of such a massive project when its size limits the number of contractors that can compete for the work. It also raises questions about how lawmakers can oversee a huge project run by a governor who has made something of a habit of bypassing legislative intent.

Claffey said the department had attempted to segment the main construction work into four bidding packages, but found only one contractor was experienced and large enough to bid on all four contracts and thereby provide the best price.

Complicating the problem is a large amount of work underway on Chicago-area tollways, under the direction of a separate, regional government agency. Still, the department was able to award competitive contracts for smaller parts of the project, such as frontage roads and landscaping, Claffey said.

Diverted Bond Proceeds

State Sen. Larry K. Bomke (R-Springfield), the Republican spokesman for the Senate Transportation Committee, said the overruns would get a close look from lawmakers. He said the governor may redirect the proceeds from state transportation bonds issued for certain projects to other projects, despite the intent of lawmakers. For instance, money that may have been borrowed to pay for road work in rapidly expanding suburban areas may instead be used elsewhere, if the governor redirects the money.

“There is no way of knowing how he is going to spend it,” Bomke said. “That’s been a chronic problem with this governor; he has been consistently inconsistent.”

Bomke cited as an example that Blagojevich promised lawmakers not to spend any appropriated monies on any kind of stem cell research–and then last year directed $10 million into a state stem cell research program.

The need to pay for the Dan Ryan cost overruns has raised objections from other lawmakers who had voted for the bonding authority believing some of the money would benefit their own constituents, only to see the money diverted to the Dan Ryan project, delaying other road projects.

Department Mum on Costs

Critics also object to IDOT’s failure to announce the cost overruns.

Asked why the department hadn’t done so, O’Keefe told Tribune reporter Hilkevitch, “At one point we did look at the fact, hey, maybe we should say this is an over $700 million construction project at this point. Unfortunately, it was right when we were ready to close down the express lanes. We said, ‘Is this the time to tell people, or do we want the focus on getting people off the expressway?'”

Claffey denied any attempt to keep the overrun quiet, noting the contract figures were available to anyone who examined the department’s project Web site.

“We feel we weren’t hiding anything,” Claffey said. Hilkevitch had submitted a Freedom of Information Act request for the project costs. “We had no problem talking with Jon about it,” Claffey said.

Dennis Byrne ([email protected]) is a Chicago writer.