Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Community groups await details on Quinn's infrastructure plans

By Ashley Griffin

Gov. Pat Quinn announced new infrastructure projects during his State of State address last week, but so far his plans are short on details.

One plan that Quinn announced was a $6 million competition to build ultra-high speed broadband networks across Illinois neighborhoods.  According to a statement from the governor’s office, the $6 million is actually not new spending. The money would come from funding included in the 2009 capital construction bill for information technology and broadband infrastructure. The fund is managed by the Department Of Commerce & Economic Opportunity.

 However, House Speaker Michael Madigan warned during an appearance at Elmhurst College in January that there will not be enough money for all the spending laid out in the capital bill because the revenue projections the bill was based on have not proved true. Madigan said the slow implementation of a plan to allow video poker at some bars and restaurants is partially to blame. He said he would like to support new infrastructure projects but asked, "Where do you find the money to pay for it?”

 Although Quinn’s office would not release its plans for the competition, Quinn said during his address it would help communities all over the state. “Through this challenge, we want our neighborhoods to become gigabit communities with Internet connections more than 100 times faster than today,” Quinn said. “Our goal is to build smart communities that will foster the job engines of the future.”

John Kersh, visiting urban project planner for the Urbana-Champaign Big Broadband project, also known as UC2B, said: “In the most general terms, there are many individuals who represent organizations that would love to have funds available to provide low- or no-cost computer equipment or other digital devices, while others would love funding for youth and adult training to increase digital literacy. Others would appreciate funds for publicly accessible computer labs.”

 UC2B has the goal of installing 293 miles of fiber-optic cables in the Urbana-Champaign area. The group was able to establish an open-access broadband network throughout the area from a $3.5 million grant in 2010 from the state of Illinois and a $22.5 million grant from the U.S Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration.

 “I’m sure we’ll all be waiting anxiously to see how, when, if this program takes shape,” Kersh said of Quinn’s proposed competition.

 In his State of the State address, Quinn also called for water infrastructure investments, such as replacing broken water mains, upgrading sewers and building sewage treatment plants though his Illinois Jobs Agenda for 2012.

 “Clean Water is the lifeblood of our people and our communities,”  Quinn said. “Illinois is blessed with abundant water from Lake Michigan, to the Illinois River, to the mighty Mississippi. But many Illinois residents are living with aging water mains that are nearly 100 years old.”

He added, “Working with mayors from Chicago and the suburbs to every part of downstate, we must invest in our Clean Water Initiative.”

A spokesperson from the Illinois Municipal League declined to comment about the need for such improvements or Quinn’s proposal until the governor’s office provides more details. Lawmakers have expressed concerns about whether there is money in the state’s tight budget for the projects.

 “At a minimum — as we just went through the numbers very quickly — he has advocated spending an additional $500 million dollars. We don’t have any money. All these things sound good, but we can't afford them. I think that’s what disturbing,” said House Minority Leader Tom Cross.

 But despite Illinois’ budget situation, some support such investments.

“Water systems run under the ground. For most people, it’s out of sight, out of mind, but in fact, those systems do need to have added investment,” said Doug Whitley, president of the Illinois Chamber of Commerce. “The Illinois Chamber is willing to step up and be a partner on many of the themes that were in the State of the State message.”

For more on the business community reaction to Quinn's State of the State speech, see Illinois Issue Blog Feb. 1, 2012.

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