It delivered wider and smoother roads, but the Illinois tollway's $5.8 billion Congestion Relief building program also left drivers questioning the agency's integrity when they learned some contractors getting multimillion-dollar contracts were generous donors to disgraced former Gov. Rod Blagojevich.
Now as the tollway unrolls another construction plan that costs twice as much -- $12 billion -- the question for leaders is how to deliver on promises of squeaky clean government with so much money at stake.
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Among the challenges are professional service contracts worth millions to engineers and architects.
Thursday, the tollway board of directors approved about $175 million in contracts for work on its Move Illinois construction program on the Tri-State and Jane Addams tollways and Elgin-O'Hare Expressway.
CHM HILL Inc. was awarded a $66.8 million contract for management and design services on the Elgin-O'Hare extension, and BV3 was awarded a similar contract for work on the Jane Addams. Contracts for design on the Jane Addams were approved with Parsons Brinckerhoff Inc. at $23.4 million, HDR Engineering Inc. at $24 million, and Crawford, Murphy & Tilly Inc. at $16.4 million. All of these firms have made various contributions to political campaigns, according to state records.
Construction companies publicly bid for jobs at the tollway and usually the lowest one is picked. But professional firms are chosen by a selection committee whose members are set by state law. They comprise the tollway's chief engineer, two deputy chief engineers, the chief procurement officer, two top managers with the diversity division, an IDOT engineer, and a retired engineer recommended by the American Council of Engineering Companies or Illinois Society of Professional Engineers.
Two potential ethical pitfalls could lurk here, experts say. One is to avoid the Illinois tradition of "pay to play" -- contractors contributing to politicians and in some cases being selected for that reason.
"There's a long and troubling history of abuse with these sorts of contracts -- especially by former Gov. Blagojevich," said Illinois Campaign for Political Reform Deputy Director David Morrison. "But we have also seen improvements in the state laws to protect against such abuses.
Secondly, it can be a small world among professionals in the public and private sectors, meaning the people hiring may have or had relationships with those seeking contracts. Several firms that have worked for the tollway include former agency or IDOT staffers among their employees.
Gov. Pat Quinn promised reforms at the tollway in 2009 and has replaced seven out of nine board directors. A new administration is also in place.
The agency follows state law in picking firms, officials said. Three finalists are determined based on qualifications, past record, location, and ability to handle the workload and meet deadlines.
The committee ranks the finalists and begins negotiations with the top ranked.
"It's a qualification-based selection," tollway Executive Director Kristi Lafleur said. "The selection is based on the merits and quality of proposals."
The meetings are not open to the public, but the minutes are available upon request. The Daily Herald obtained a copy of the minutes of a Jan. 20 meeting that did show a record of the votes taken on contract finalists but did not contain any of the rationale for why one firm was preferred above another.
Terry Pastika, executive director of the Citizen Advocacy Council, said it might behoove the tollway to shine more light on the selection committee's actions.
"If the goal is to maintain maximum transparency to restore faith in government, then the public body can always look at how to go beyond the confines of the statute and be a model," Pastika said.
"Certainly they could be making the committee more accessible to the public."
The committee's decisions then are voted on by tollway directors. Reforms enacted as part of the Blagojevich scandal have tightened procurement policies, tollway spokeswoman Wendy Abrams said. That means contractors have to disclose previous employment with a state agency and firms awarded contracts worth more than $50,000 must register with the Illinois Board of Elections. The law now prohibits state contractors from contributing to a candidate for governor or their political action committees. It forbids those firms from donating to the campaign of a person who awarded contracts to them.
The tollway also has two officials from the state's Executive Ethics Commission assigned to it to review its procurement process.
Abrams noted that tollway board members are appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Senate and that the agency has an independent inspector general along with legal advice from the Illinois attorney general's office.
"Together these safeguards are intended to ensure that the tollway's procurement process -- as a whole -- is transparent and above board," she said in an email.
Morrison, of the Campaign for Political Reform, notes, however, that "there's no way of knowing if a system works until you road test it, so to speak. So, for now, we will have to watch the process carefully and see if they have all the kinks worked out."