DECATUR — Decatur schools, library and city infrastructure are in line to get a piece of the $45 billion capital improvement plan signed into law by Gov. J.B. Pritzker on Friday.
The bipartisan infrastructure proposal — dubbed "Rebuild Illinois" by the Pritzker administration — is the state's first in more than 10 years and will be made possible by revenue from sports betting licenses and increases to taxes and fees.
It outlines a series of projects funded in part by raising the motor fuel tax and transportation-related vehicle fees and enacting a massive expansion of gambling.
"The problems we face are the result of years of disinvestment and passing the buck, but not this year," Pritzker said at a bill signing news conference in Springfield on Friday.
Pritzker said the six-year plan will create 540,000 jobs while investing in roads, bridges, railways, universities, early childhood centers, a state crime lab and veterans homes, among others.
“With these investments, we’re creating and supporting hundreds of thousands of new jobs in our state,” Pritzker said. “This is more than an infrastructure plan. This is a job creation plan the likes of which our state has never seen.”
State Sen. Andy Manar, D-Bunker Hill, co-chaired a series of statewide committee hearings leading up to the passage of the bill. He said those meetings showed the need for an infrastructure plan.
“Every community that we heard from — both urban and rural, conservative and liberal — every single community told us their story of crumbling infrastructure and told us in very clear terms that it was time for us to act,” he said.
A meeting was held March 18 at the Decatur Public Library to gather input.
The bulk of the money — $33.2 billion — will be spent on transportation projects. An additional $4.3 billion will be spent on state facilities, $3.5 billion on education projects and $1.2 billion on environmental projects.
To pay for it all, the Democratic-controlled Legislature approved the expansion of gambling around the state, including several new casinos. Lawmakers also signed off on doubling the state's gasoline tax from 19 cents a gallon to 38 cents a gallon, as well as bumping the price of cigarettes by $1 a pack, and adding a 15% tax on e-cigarettes. The cost to register electric vehicles will climb by $250; the cost to register all other vehicles will be increased by $50. The plan also calls for an increase on the real estate transfer on commercial properties and the removal of a sales tax exemption on property valued at more than $10,000.
Pritzker on Friday said all of Illinois will benefit from the plan as he defended a portion that dedicates about $6 million to each Democratic state senator for projects in their districts, compared to $3 million for each Republican senator. Democrats and Republicans in the House would each see about half those amounts respectively.
“The fact is that a majority of the funding in the infrastructure bill goes to downstate Illinois,” Pritzker said. “Universities around the state are mostly, almost entirely, in districts represented by Republicans. And that’s where hundreds of millions of dollars, in fact billions when you add it all up, are going to. The money is getting distributed I think very fairly across the state.”
Local governments will be allowed to decide which roads need the most work, which will "relieve some of the pressure, therefore, on property taxes," the governor said.
"It means fewer blown out tires, fewer car axles thrown out of balance, fewer fender benders and fewer life-threatening car accidents," Pritzker said. "Taken together, our goal is to make some of the best roads in the country right here in Illinois and some of the best you've driven on in decades."
A bipartisan group of state lawmakers and U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin flanked Pritzker at the Springfield bill signing. Durbin said he traveled from Washington, D.C., for the event to see "what an infrastructure bill looks like."
"So I guess you're wondering when is the federal government going to come around with an infrastructure bill and I honestly don't know the answer to that," Durbin said. "It was promised in the last campaign, there's been an effort on a bipartisan basis to get it moving and man, would it be terrific to take this capital bill and make it the 20% down payment on a major federal bill."
The 362-page bill identifies four Decatur projects that would be funded by grants from the Build Illinois Bond fund, which supports state and local infrastructure, economic development and healthcare care, education and environmental projects. They are:
Fiber optic network expansion
The legislation contains $1.4 million for Decatur's fiber network: $800,000 for the city's efforts to build a fiber optic network "ring" around Decatur and $600,000 to Decatur Public Schools for costs associated with hooking up to the network.
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City officials have expressed their intention to expand Decatur's broadband internet access as an economic development tool for years.
A fiber backbone was installed in 2014 along Martin Luther King Jr. Drive and connects city facilities such as the Municipal Services Center and police headquarters, allowing data to flow more quickly between the sites.
Officials have also said they believe having a fiber optic ring would be helpful in recruiting and retaining businesses in the city.
City manager Scot Wrighton said several schools and Richland Community College have joined area government facilities in being connected to the current fiber network.
If the city receives the state funding, he said, it will go toward expanding the network to additional locations in the city.
"The technology is changing all the time, so my intention is to take (the expansion plans) back to council to revisit it so we can make the best use of the funds, if they are made available," Wrighton said.
For Decatur Public Schools, the opportunity to connect to the fiber optic ring will give schools a more robust infrastructure for technology, said Fred Bouchard, assistant superintendent of support services. He said the district appreciates the efforts of state Rep. Sue Scherer and Sen. Andy Manar, both Democrats, to advocate for the state support.
“Any time we can do things to improve infrastructure, that's a positive thing,” he said. “Sometimes they're not glamorous. It's not a new building or an addition. It's kind of behind-the-scenes, hardware and machinery, that isn't flashy but makes an enormous difference.”
Decatur is in the midst of a five-year strategic plan to become a “destination district” for families. In addition to reimagining the use of facilities and implementing a “whole child” approach, one component of the plan is to strengthen intergovernmental cooperation and partnership. The project will provide an opportunity for that, Bouchard said.
“We all kind of lean on the same taxpayer base, and how can we do this to benefit everybody?” he said. “We're excited about it and think this is positive for the state and for education. We appreciate what this bill does for schools around our state.”
According to the legislation, the city would also receive $300,000 for improvements to the Decatur Public Library.
The library has leased its space within the former Sears building at 130 N. Franklin St. since the city took ownership of the facility in 2016. The rent money goes into a fund that the city uses to maintain the facility.
Wrighton said the funds would be earmarked for upgrading the library's heating, ventilation and air conditioning system. In April, the city council was presented with the results of a Johnson Controls Inc. survey that determined the cost of the HVAC upgrades would range from $244,000 to $470,000.
The reason for the range, the company said, is because the city may determine it only wants to do a portion of the improvements at this time.
Decatur school building renovations
The school district would receive a $600,000 grant for "costs associated with building renovations," the capital bill shows.
As part of the strategic plan, the district is carrying out a sweeping transformation of facilities known as the BOLD Plan (Building better Opportunities for Learning in Decatur). Aspects of the plan include combining the district's two Montessori programs into one renovated building, reducing the district's overall number of schools from 22 to 17, adding air conditioning at all buildings and increasing capacity for some of the district's most popular programs — such as Dennis Lab School.
"That particular part of the bill, we had only heard was 'potentially'" coming to Decatur," Bouchard said Friday. "We're certainly pleased that additional dollars are attached to some of the renovations we're doing in our buildings, so today is a really nice win for DPS, and in a great sense, for the state, with funding for infrastructure, schools, putting people to work, and the investment in Illinois and its citizens is awesome."
The Associated Press, Capital News Illinois and the Chicago Tribune contributed to this story.