Without a state budget deal, road work could come to a screeching halt on July 1 and thousands could lose their jobs

CARBONDALE — If there is no budget deal by June 30, state road projects will come to a screeching halt and hundreds of Southern Illinois workers will lose their jobs, according to Beck Simonds, chief operating officer for E.T. Simonds Construction, headquartered in Carbondale.

Simonds said that the state contractor has 25 active road projects ongoing throughout Southern Illinois that collectively employ about 300 people.

Considering that subcontractors and suppliers also would be affected, the job loss is far greater than just the road crews that would be immediately laid off, he said.

Simonds said his company and other state contractors received a letter from the Illinois Department of Transportation this past week informing them that they are required to halt construction projects if lawmakers fail to reach a budget agreement by the start of the 2018 fiscal year, which is July 1.

The letter, a copy of which Simonds provided to the newspaper, states that contractors are to begin bringing projects to a condition that will provide a clear and safely traveled way.

While lawmakers are meeting in special session in a last-ditch attempt to break longstanding political gridlock, Simonds said that crews are in the process of preparing for a shutdown of the road projects under their purview, as directed by IDOT.

“It’s frustrating to be the third year in a row,” he said of the budget stalemate. “It’s tough to make business decisions knowing this continues to be unresolved.”

Simonds said projects were halted for a few days last year as well, though an eventual stopgap budget deal allowed work to resume relatively quickly. But last year, prior to passage of the partial budget, Simonds said IDOT informed contractors that they had the option of continuing work, if they had the means to float the state’s late payments, with the expectation that payments would resume as soon as a budget deal was reached.

IDOT spokeswoman Kelsea Gurski confirmed that was the department’s directive in 2016, though the situation didn’t have to play out because of the stopgap budget deal reached June 30, on the eve of the new fiscal year.

“This year, however, that is absolutely not an option. All work must be stopped,” Gurski said, in response to an inquiry from the newspaper. Gurski did not respond to a follow-up question about why the directive is different this year compared to 2016.

IDOT’s letter to E.T. Simonds states that it is the “department’s intent to initiate work on the project immediately after a budget resolution and appropriations are made.”

“We appreciate the cooperation that we have with your company and are committed to successfully completing this project in a fair and efficient manner.”

A few of the more high-profile regional road projects on which E.T. Simonds is the state’s lead contractor are the Wolf Creek Road bridge and interchange in Carterville; work on Interstate 57 south of Marion; work on Illinois Route 13 just east of Marion; and the replacement of a bridge on Giant City Road just south of Pleasant Hill Road.

Bill Frey, executive director of Associated General Contractors of Illinois, which represents heavy highway contractors in downstate Illinois (all counties outside of Cook and the collar counties) said the economic impact of a shutdown will be felt far and wide. About 25,000 laborers will be directly affected by layoffs statewide, he said. Subcontractors and suppliers also will be hit hard, noted Frey and Simonds.

“They’re hitting their most productive time of the year with the most daylight hours and good weather, and it’s tough that they have to pull everything off and restart later,” Frey said.

It’s also expensive for the state.

IDOT estimates that shutting down construction alone will cost the state $19 million with an additional $2 million in costs each day during the stoppage to secure and maintain construction work zones.

Sens. Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth noted in a joint letter sent Wednesday to Gov. Bruce Rauner and legislative leaders that Congress has provided Illinois with more than $7.5 billion in federal highway funding through 2020, which amounts to 77 percent of the state’s transportation dollars.

But without a budget by July 1, IDOT no longer has budget authority to spend federal money on the nearly 700 ongoing construction projects around the state. The projects are valued at $2.3 billion, according to Durbin and Duckworth.

“Illinois is the only state in the nation operating without a budget. With the state already owing a record $15 billion in unpaid bills, Illinois simply cannot afford the unnecessary costs and the further economic damage that a preventable transportation shut down would produce,” reads their letter, which was shared with media. “We urge you come together to pass a clean budget and finally end the longest state budget stalemate in modern American history.”

As budget negotiations are ongoing in Springfield, Frey also sounded the alarm about a proposal included in both of the competing budgets introduced by Senate Democrats and Republicans to permanently sweep $268 million from the state’s road and bridges fund and redirect it to other transportation priorities, namely the financially troubled Regional Transportation Authority that funds Chicago-area mass transit. It also would increase Illinois’ Amtrak commitment by $2 million.

Frey said such a fund sweep would create a ripple effect on future budgets that could result in a reduction of nearly $1 billion during the course of the state’s $11 billion, five-year roads and bridges construction plan that spans from 2018 to 2023. For Southern Illinois’ IDOT District 9, that could result in cuts of about $40 million over the life of the plan, he said.

“That’s a huge blow to the system,” he said.

Laura Calderon, executive director of Illinois Public Transportation Association, said the fund sweep is not a proposal put forth by the association that represents regional mass transit districts. The association is neither opposing nor endorsing it, she said.

Calderon said the additional funding to the Regional Transportation Authority is necessary for it to continue providing mandated public transit services in the Chicago region, but Calderon said the association’s desire would be for that money to come from a different source. “We try to work with the road builders,” she said. “Generally, transit and other transportation interest try to work together.”

The special legislative session called by the governor is scheduled to last 10 days, through the end of the fiscal year.