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Mask off, Rebuild on? Pritzker touts nearly $21 billion roads and bridges plan as ‘bolstering our pandemic recovery’

Acting Illinois Transportation Secretary Omer Osman said that the plan would renew the transportation sector in Illinois after “the most challenging year ever experienced in our industry.”

Gov. J.B. Pritzker, right, and other state officials at a news conference in Springfield on Wednesday.
Gov. J.B. Pritzker, right front; acting Illinois Transportation Secretary Omer Osman, second from left, and other state officials at a news conference in Springfield on Wednesday.
Andrew Sullender/Chicago Sun-Times

SPRINGIELD — In his first entirely maskless news conference since last year, Gov. J.B. Pritzker announced a $20.7 billion infrastructure plan Wednesday to improve Illinois roads and bridges over the next six years.

Under the governor’s plan, 2,779 miles of Illinois roads and 7.9 million square feet of the state’s bridges will be redone or created anew. This adds to the 290 bridges and 2,700 miles of road that have been worked on since Pritzker’s Rebuild Illinois plan was passed in 2019.

“The projects in this multi-year plan will continue to create and support hundreds of thousands of jobs for hardworking Illinoisans across our state — bolstering our pandemic recovery in yet one more way,” Pritzker said.

“Rebuild Illinois is about investing for the future — supporting this generation and the next, making sure we have good jobs and the roads to get there, and building a state where opportunity is just around the corner for everyone, no matter where you’re standing.”

Gov. J.B. Pritzker speaks at a news conference outside the Illinois Department of Transportation offices in Springfield on Wednesday.
Gov. J.B. Pritzker speaks at a news conference outside the Illinois Department of Transportation offices in Springfield on Wednesday.
Andrew Sullender/Chicago Sun-Times

Acting Illinois Transportation Secretary Omer Osman said that the plan would renew the transportation sector in Illinois after “the most challenging year ever experienced in our industry.”

“Despite that, I am proud to say we kept our construction season on schedule, and not all states can say that,” said Osman. “I consider the work [IDOT] did in that time … to be heroic.”

Expenditures for the plan include $5.79 billion for highway reconstruction, $4.82 billion in bridge improvements, $2.59 billion in new roads, $1.43 billion for land acquisition, and $1.21 billion in safety improvements.

The over $20 billion authorized by the plan represents more than half of the $33.2 billion of infrastructure spending approved by the Legislature two years ago. A bevy of taxes were approved to pay for the expansion including increases of the gas tax and the cost of vehicle registration.

The budget authorizing the spending earned bipartisan support at the time, in part due to a series of business tax incentives supported by Republicans. But in his latest budget proposal, Pritzker has called for a repeal of many of those incentives, dubbing them “corporate loopholes.”

In their own news conference Wednesday morning, House Republicans called Pritzker out for “breaking his word” on these tax breaks.

“In order to be an effective leader you have to have credibility. Unfortunately, Gov. Pritzker has lost a lot of credibility over the last year,” said state Rep. Tom Demmer, R-Dixon. “These ‘corporate loopholes’ are what the governor agreed with Republicans to be priorities for making Illinois more economically competitive and would help put Illinois in a better place.”

State Rep. Tom Demmer, R-Dixon, at a 2019 news conference.
State Rep. Tom Demmer, R-Dixon, at a 2019 news conference.
John O’Connor/AP file

At his news conference, Pritzker disputed that the tax incentives were part of a “permanent deal” that went beyond that year’s budget.

“I know that Republicans supported the bipartisan Rebuild plan because they believed in it, and voted for it,” said Pritzker. “Back in 2019 [tax incentives] were put into the budget because we could afford to do that. I don’t know if anyone has noticed but we’ve had a global pandemic, and in the interest of putting out a balanced budget this year … we did what we did and now there’s a lot of negotiations going on.”

Some Republicans continue to support the infrastructure spending, including state Sen. Don DeWitte, who spoke in favor of the plan at Pritzker’s announcement.

“Illinois is the transportation hub of the Midwest, and I am pleased to see that maintaining and improving our roads and bridges remains a priority through this new multi-year plan,” said the St. Charles Republican.

Pritzker also announced that “100% normal Amtrak services” will resume in Illinois on July 19, with the Chicago to Milwaukee line resuming at full capacity next week.

“This increased capacity will make it easier for Illinoisans and out-of-staters alike to explore all that our state has to offer,” said Pritzker. “My administration recognizes the value of these routes, which is why Rebuild Illinois dedicates over $1 billion to rail improvements.”

In accordance with U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance, face masks will still be required on public transit, including Amtrak trains.

But Pritzker also noted that his Wednesday news conference was the first in which he and the other speakers remained entirely maskless since facial coverings were mandated early in the pandemic.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker chats with officials Wednesday at his first maskless news conference since last year.
Gov. J.B. Pritzker chats with officials Wednesday at his first maskless news conference since last year.
Andrew Sullender/Chicago Sun-Times

The mask-free event in a parking lot at the Illinois Department of Transportation headquarters comes less than a week after the governor relaxed the state’s mask mandate — allowing those who have been vaccinated to remain maskless outdoors and in most indoor settings.

After the event Pritzker could be seen mingling with supporters and administration officials, telling them he was “excited” to see their faces.