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Dem leaders want state to pay for Obama Center-related road projects

Former President Barack Obama points out features of the proposed Obama Presidential Center, which is scheduled to be built in Jackson Park, during a gathering at the South Shore Cultural Center on May 3, 2017, in Chicago, Illinois. | Scott Olson/Getty Images

Senate President John Cullerton and House Speaker Michael Madigan — the Chicago Democrats who control the Illinois General Assembly — are mapping plans for the state to help pay for infrastructure improvements in and around Jackson Park related to the Obama Presidential Center.

The two leaders “are looking for a commitment from the governor to support road projects that would support the Obama Presidential Center,” Cullerton told the Chicago Sun-Times on Tuesday.

Gov. Bruce Rauner’s office did not respond to a request from the Sun-Times for a comment on state assistance for road projects associated with the future Obama Center.

Cullerton said the matter was discussed at a Sept. 19 meeting at the Bilandic Building with the Democrats and the Republican House and Senate leaders, Jim Durkin and Bill Brady.

A source told the Sun-Times that over time, the state could be asked for more than $100 million for transportation improvement projects triggered by construction of the Center.

At that Sept. 19 meeting, “The Speaker reminded the others of the estimate that the city has developed about infrastructure needs, the road networks that might serve that property,” Madigan spokesman Steve Brown said Tuesday.

Patty Schuh, a spokeswoman for Brady, said the conversation also included a discussion of legislation to provide capital for state infrastructure projects. “We are certainly interested in a capital bill moving forward and are reviewing any necessary components,” she said on Tuesday.

The Obama Foundation and former President Barack Obama are raising private money to construct the Obama Center complex in Jackson Park, to include a museum, auditorium, classrooms, offices, a library and outdoor spaces, such as a garden and athletic field.

The construction cost of the Obama Center complex is estimated between $300 million and $350 million, according to a bid document. Groundbreaking is set for next year, with the center complex taking up to three years to build.

In this initial phase, public money would be used for a variety of proposed road projects related to the Obama Center, such as the closing of Cornell Drive, a controversial move because it’s a main artery through Jackson Park, shutting Marquette Drive in the park, and the widening of Lake Shore Drive, a state road, from 57th Street to Hayes Drive.

Though the state is in the midst of a financial crisis, Cullerton said the money “could easily come out of the Road Fund without any additional revenue. . . . There is enough money to fund this project. We just ask the governor to prioritize.”

A gas tax is a major source of money for the road fund.

Obama Foundation Chair Marty Nesbitt told the Sun-Times, “We are investing in the State of Illinois and the South Side of Chicago because we believe we have an opportunity to strengthen a community in the way that will pay dividends here and across the state.

“We support investment in the South Side, and we support efforts to leverage our investments on the South Side to further enhance the economic potential of the community without any regards who is making that investment.”

Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s City Hall declined to comment on Tuesday when asked about getting money from Springfield to bolster road projects associated with the Obama Center. Last week, when asked about state help, Emanuel said: “When the announcement was made I was clear that I thought there was going to be an opportunity to invest in the overall infrastructure to make that improvement.”