Gearing up for a $12 billion roads program, the Illinois tollway has vowed to award contracts not just to construction company giants but to smaller businesses, including those owned by minorities.
That could end up costing an extra $500 million, staff engineers said Thursday.
Officials blamed a new state law enacted as part of reforms in the wake of Gov. Rod Blagojevich's ouster. Under Blagojevich's tenure, the tollway approved multiple contracts with companies who also were generous donors to the ex-governor.
The law increases oversight of lucrative engineering and construction contracts, requiring four state agencies to be involved in approvals.
Previously, work on projects could start within 30 days of the tollway board's vote. Now, it's closer to 97 days and counting, Chief Engineer Paul Kovacs said, noting that some contracts the board endorsed in December are still in limbo.
At least 600 contracts could be approved for the program if work is distributed to big and small companies. When you spread the waiting time out over hundreds of contracts, it snowballs, Kovacs said, noting that if a year of construction is lost it could mean $500 million more over the life of the 15-year construction program.
Director Mark Peterson of Lincolnshire asked if administrators had taken the new law into account when they came up with the budget for the construction program, dubbed Move Illinois.
"We knew there would be additional hurdles but we didn't anticipate it taking that long," Kovacs said.
The tollway along with other agencies is backing legislation to ease some of the restrictions, but that doesn't solve the looming time and money crunch.
If the agency backtracks on hiring smaller companies and goes with the larger firms, "that means going in an opposite direction," Director James Sweeney of Chicago said.
"The pressure we're under now is to try and make both things happen," Kovacs said.
Officials took no action but will continue to monitor the time frame of approvals.
"The purpose of the act was to make sure every 'i' is dotted and every 't' is crossed," Tollway Chair Paula Wolff said. Now the issue the agency faces is, "how do we make sure procurement is fast enough and pure enough," she said.
Move Illinois includes upgrades to all the tollways, building an interchange at I-57 and the Tri-State, extending the Elgin-O'Hare Expressway east and widening I-90 west of Chicago.
Time is also a concern with the Elgin-O'Hare project, officials said. The federal government needs to sign off on environmental-related issues by the end of 2012, and DuPage County leaders along with local mayors need to figure out how to pay for their $300 million share of the $3.4 billion corridor.
"It is a big issue ... every level of government is trying to do more with less," said Director Jeff Redick of Elmhurst, who represents DuPage on the board. "I'm confident things will happen in a timely fashion."