- Associated Press - Sunday, June 26, 2016

EDINBURG, Ill. (AP) - As a first-year superintendent in the Edinburg schools, Fred Lamkey got an education he didn’t expect: Traveling Illinois 29, which in various spots has been torn up for 15 years.

During his 20-mile school-day commute from Riverton, Lamkey sees the hazards of an endless construction project - highway lanes swerving and merging, constant and sometimes-confusing orange road-work signs and the impatience that goes with driving a two-lane road in a four-lane world.

“I’ve seen some people make some pretty dicey moves trying to get around one car to make progress,” Lamkey said.

If political infighting over a state budget continues back up the road in Springfield, the precarious state of the highway and many others will continue indefinitely.

The Illinois Department of Transportation warns that if there’s no budget agreement by the July 1 start of the fiscal year, not only will planned projects not start, but ongoing jobs representing a $2 billion investment will be shut down. That, officials say, means continued commuting headaches, safety hazards and “avoidable” extra costs.

“We’re on the brink of something that was once unthinkable,” Transportation Secretary Randall Blankenhorn told reporters two weeks ago at a news conference. “I can’t overstate the consequences of inaction.”

Concrete mixers and road graders would be idled on projects ranging from the colossal reconstruction of the Jane Byrne interchange in Chicago, which carries 400,000 vehicles a day, to the resurfacing of a lonely southern Illinois stretch of Interstate 57, which 28,000 vehicles traverse daily, according to an Associated Press analysis of IDOT data.

The 19 largest, most expensive ongoing projects represent $1.1 billion in spending and, collectively, are less than halfway complete in terms of money spent, the analysis showed.

For instance, lane restrictions would continue on the $136 million reconstruction of Interstate 55 at Lake Shore Drive in Chicago, which began in May 2014 and is only 45 percent done. Only $1 million has been spent of an authorized $33 million reconstruction of U.S. 34 from Yorkville to Oswego.

In Christian County, residents have wanted Illinois 29 widened to four lanes for decades.

The first-term Republican governor and Democrats who control the General Assembly have yet to agree to a budget deal, dating back a year. Road construction continued only because Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner signed a separate infrastructure spending bill the Legislature sent him.

That’s not the case now. The two sides have yet to find common ground on anything, with Rauner insisting on business-friendly changes in law and political modifications such as officeholder term limits before agreeing to a budget, while Democrats say a multibillion-dollar deficit and unpaid bills should first be addressed with the help of a tax increase.

Even if previously designated for specific projects, generally speaking, no money can be spent without a budget authorizing IDOT to do so.

Rauner, who spent most of last year railing against “piecemeal” budgeting, now is proposing a stopgap spending plan to keep government operating for half a year, including road projects. He has proposed separate legislation that would fully fund public schools.

Democrats have demurred. House Speaker Michael Madigan, a Chicago Democrat, maintains that “working groups” of rank-and-file legislators should be allowed to negotiate first. Rauner has supported the working groups but now asserts that they’re moving in slow-motion on Democrats’ orders.

Shutting down pavement-pouring that’s underway would simply add to the financial stress, exacerbate safety hazards and add to the wasted time and productivity that road improvements are supposed to solve, said Rocky Moretti, policy and research director for TRIP, a Washington, D.C.-based transportation research group.

“With work zones, you want to get in and get out as soon as possible, because the more traffic disorder created, there’s a real cost there because of the additional delays,” Moretti said.

IDOT spokesman Guy Tridgell said officials have been studying the cost of mothballing projects, but Blankenhorn said it would cost “tens of millions of dollars in avoidable costs just to ensure our work zones are safe” while idle. And there are logistics and other unknowns - for instance, whether a contractor that started the work is available to finish it when the money finally arrives.

“Stopping and starting projects is not as easy as flipping a switch,” Blankenhorn said.

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Online: https://www.gettingaroundillinois.com/

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Contact Political Writer John O’Connor at https://twitter.com/apoconnor. His work can be found at https://bigstory.ap.org/content/john-oconnor.

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