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posted: 9/23/2012 5:00 AM

Editorial: Looking for confidence in tollway contract

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The Daily Herald Editorial Board

It is generally considered a bad thing for the right hand not to know what the left is doing. For a new consultant contract, however, the Illinois Tollway says it's the opposite.

A better question might be whether it's even possible -- and that's the question the tollway should be examining very critically as it prepares to spend $1 million for a consultant to evaluate construction contracts and practices in its major upgrade program.

This is not to quibble with the money. Spending $1 million for independent oversight to make sure that all the quality, safety and legal i's are dotted and t's crossed in a $12.1 billion construction program seems like sound project management. But more attention does need to be given to the company that appears destined to get the work.

New Jersey-based Hill International Ltd. may well be qualified to monitor the Move Illinois construction problem, but some of the work it will be monitoring was its own doing. As Daily Herald transportation writer Marni Pyke reported last week, Hill monitored the tollway's $6 billion Congestion Relief program in 2005 and one of its duties in the new contract will be to assess how well that worked.

The tollway's response to questions about the possibility for conflict of interest there is almost nonchalant. "No Hill personnel involved in the prior work will be involved in the new contract, which will focus on construction management and quality assurance. The staff of this project will not include any staff involved with prior tollway projects and will be totally separate from them," spokeswoman Joelle McGinnis explained in an email.

McGinnis said Hill staff were not involved in design or construction management in the Congestion Relief project, so the work they'll be auditing now will not be the same as what it did before.

Hmmm. Well, maybe. But the situation sounds dangerously close to a wrist slap the tollway received in 2008 when an audit of the Congestion Relief project cited conflicts of interest in some cases when engineering firms hired to monitor construction and spending practices wound up reviewing some of their own work.

At the time, the tollway said it put in place new mechanisms to catch and eliminate such conflicts. One wonders whether they have them in place now and what they are catching.

Adding to the worrisome nature of the tollway's apparent lack of concern about this contract is the fact that the potential conflict was never discussed by the finance committee that recommended the contract, among other expenses, for approval by the full board. But the opportunity exists to rectify that now. Before the tollway board gives final approval to the Hill contract, it should seek and secure assurances that Hill will not be evaluating its own work and that the full review of the Move Illinois program will be complete and truly independent.

Just saying "Don't worry, the right hand will not know what the left hand did" does not inspire much confidence on that point -- or any other in an effort that aims to ensure efficiency and quality of a major road-building program.

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