Illinois gets extra $71 million for transportation projects

The federal government is dusting off nearly $2 billion in unused earmarks, which means a $71.4 million windfall for Illinois, the U.S. Department of Transportation announced Tuesday.

A 2016 spending bill approved in late 2015 by Congress contains a proviso allowing unused transportation earmarks to be dispensed to states for related work. The catch is that earmarks must be more than 10 years old, and less than 10 percent of the total must have been spent or obligated.

Funds also must be used within three years.

The extra cash will be a boost to Illinois amid its financial crisis. But it also could mean hard feelings for communities whose earmarks will be recycled for new priorities. The Illinois Department of Transportation advised the federal government on what projects to pick.

The U.S. DOT is requiring that work must be done within 50 miles of the original earmark and fall under federal highway program parameters. In addition to roads and bridges, bike, pedestrian and transit projects, such as new buses or a walking path, also could qualify for funding.

Some old suburban earmarks scheduled to be reallocated include engineering for a bridge linking Caton Farm Road with Bruce Road in Will County and preconstruction and construction at Route 31 from Bull Valley Road to Route 176 in McHenry County.

IDOT budgeted $1.85 billion for highways and bridges in 2016. The state shrank its multiyear highway improvement program in 2015, partly due to the lack of a long-term capital plan.

Congress banned earmarks several years ago after scandals, such as the infamous "bridge to nowhere" in Alaska.

But before the prohibition, millions of dollars were allocated for specific construction, and in many cases the money was just sitting there.

"This is a tremendous opportunity for state and local governments to work together to identify their needs heading into the next 30 years," U.S. DOT Secretary Anthony Foxx said in a statement. "I encourage these leaders to identify innovative projects that reconnect their communities and increase access to jobs, education and basic services."

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