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Illinois to use bonds to pay for construction

By Ray Long
Chicago Tribune

SPRINGFIELD – Gov. Rod Blagojevich plans to pump about $1 billion into the state's road system over the next three years through a bond program to be paid off with future revenue, a move critics suggested would pass major costs on to future generations.

Tim Martin, secretary of the Illinois Department of Transportation, said the goal of the program is to put people to work now rather than wait several years and to target projects that help spur additional economic development.

"If you build some road expansion projects today versus five or six years from now ... you stimulate the construction jobs today," Martin said.

The $1 billion would be used on projects started over the next three fiscal years, but the bulk of the payments on the bonds would not likely be made until "2010 and beyond," Martin said.

The payments would be made with future road-fund revenue, such as gas taxes and license-plate fees, Martin said. He compared the maneuver to taking out a home-equity loan on a house.

But state Sen. Steve Rauschenberger (R-Elgin), a point person on budget issues, said the more apt comparison is a family "willing to buy a third or fourth car for their household without trying to find a second job."

"No one has ever bonded the future, put tomorrow on a credit card, like this administration," said Rauschenberger, a U.S. Senate candidate.

The new road bond plan, which Blagojevich will detail more fully later this month, also follows harsh criticism from lawmakers who have maintained the governor diverted hundreds of millions of dollars from the road fund to help balance the current budget.

Rauschenberger contended the road bonds would merely replace dollars that the governor has already diverted.

As Blagojevich prepares to unveil the road bonds, state transportation officials also face uncertainty over how much money they will get from the federal government's six-year plan.

President Bush and Congress have been wrangling over how much money should go to the states since late last year, and they are tens of billions of dollars apart.

State officials had counted on the federal plan to kick in as the state's five-year Illinois FIRST plan, begun under former Gov. George Ryan, came to a close.

But with the state's budget problems and the lingering questions over federal dollars, Martin said the state decided to extend its traditional five-year road plan to seven years.

The decision means some projects that would have been cut from a five-year plan would remain in the seven-year plan, Martin said.

"If we go through [with] cutting the projects, it will be just a hellacious session" with the legislature this spring, Martin said. It would create parochial wars among lawmakers over why projects in some legislative districts were cut and others weren't.

But Rauschenberger was concerned that the seven-year plan potentially could slow down some key projects.