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Southern Illinois officials push lawmakers for Southwest Illinois Corridor funding

  • Upgrades to the aging Communications Building are among the spending projects for which SIU leaders are lobbying state lawmakers.

    Upgrades to the aging Communications Building are among the spending projects for which SIU leaders are lobbying state lawmakers.
    Geoff Ritter photo

  • John Dunn

    John Dunn

  • Marc L. Kiehna

    Marc L. Kiehna

By Peter Hancock
Capitol News Illinois
updated: 3/6/2019 6:26 PM

SPRINGFIELD -- Local officials from southern Illinois told state lawmakers Monday their highest priorities in a hoped-for public works package are upgrades to college and university campuses and expansion of regional highways. That expansion would include the proposed "Southwest Illinois Connector" linking the Carbondale and Murphysboro areas to the eastern edge of the St. Louis metropolitan area.

"I don't think you can separate roads from an institution like (Southern Illinois University)-Carbondale," said Marc L. Kiehna, a Randolph County commissioner and chairman of the Four County Highway Coalition pushing for the new highway.

Kiehna was one of several people who spoke Monday during a joint meeting of two Senate subcommittees in Edwardsville. The subcommittees are putting together a proposed multibillion-dollar public works package, or capital bill.

Illinois last approved a major public works package in 2009, during Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn's administration, and several people told the Senate panel that another is long overdue.

"During the last four years, we had a governor that wasn't helpful to Illinois, did not want to invest in our state and was willing to let our universities, roads and bridges crumble to achieve his political goal," said Charles "Totsie" Bailey, of the Southwest Illinois Building and Trades Council, referring to former Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner.

Officials from the Southern Illinois University system presented a long list of projects, starting with an $83 million plan to refurbish the aging mass communications and media arts building and a $98 million science building on the Carbondale campus. The university is also hoping for a new education building for its medical school campus in Springfield.

In addition to those projects, however, John Dunn, interim chancellor of the SIU-Carbondale campus, said the school has a backlog of about $700 million worth of "deferred maintenance" projects.

"Visually, we need cranes on our campus," he said. "Cranes on the campus send a powerful message to the public at large that we're alive and well, we're working forward and we're creating jobs."

Southern Illinois officials have been talking about some version of the Southwest Illinois Connector project since the late 1960s. It calls for expanding a number of highway routes from two lanes to four in Jackson, Monroe, Perry, and Randolph counties.

Although no formal cost estimates have been released, Kiehna said the entire project -- including engineering, land acquisition and actual construction -- would probably be around $400 million.

"I understand that maybe some things have to be built in segments," he told the panel. "I'm not opposed to that if we can see some movement."

As lawmakers listened to the presentations, though, there was little consensus among local officials about how to pay for the projects. Some officials acknowledged that an increase in motor fuel taxes might be needed to fund highway programs.

The 19-cent Illinois motor fuel tax has been unchanged since 1990. Missouri's gas tax is 17 cents while Kentucky's is tied to the price of gas. In Indiana, however, lawmakers hiked the gas tax from 18 cents to 28 cents last July.

Monday's meeting in Edwardsville was the second in a series of regional meetings that the Senate committees are holding around the state. The next meeting is scheduled for March 18, in Decatur.