Four years in, Rebuild Illinois has been a success - but more can be done

Next month marks the fourth anniversary of the historic, bipartisan Rebuild Illinois law.

This multibillion-dollar infrastructure improvement plan addressed years of neglect on everything from roads and bridges to schools and broadband internet.

So far, it has been a success - not just at modernizing the critical infrastructure that our economy cannot function without but also at investing in good-paying jobs.

Rebuild Illinois has generated $2 billion in additional transportation funding annually. As a result, four years into the six-year program, Illinois has repaired 5,000 miles of highway, restored nearly 500 bridges, constructed more than 700 safety improvements, and supported 3,800 local transportation projects.

And with two more years to go, alongside a more sustainable long-term revenue model plus new money from the federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, the work will continue.

Between 2023 and 2028, Illinois is investing $25 billion on roads and bridges and another $10 billion to improve public transit options, rail lines, airports and ports.

The suburbs will see significant investments that can drive economic growth. In addition to enhancements at Metra, Amtrak and O'Hare, Illinois will complete more than 600 road and bridge projects alone worth $3.4 billion in DuPage, Kane, Lake, McHenry and Will Counties.

Of course, building billions of dollars of public works projects on-time, on-budget and safely requires a reliable, skilled workforce supply pipeline. That's especially true in today's tight labor market.

Fortunately, the construction industry's registered apprenticeship system, which is the largest privately financed system of higher education in Illinois, is well-positioned to meet the moment. According to U.S. Department of Labor data, active construction apprentices in Illinois have increased by 25% over the past five years.

At a time when many young people are evaluating whether to pursue degrees that often require tens of thousands of dollars in student debt, apprenticeships are offering Illinoisans a debt-free learning path to lifelong careers in in-demand occupations.

Indeed, research from the Illinois Economic Policy Institute and the Project for Middle Class Renewal at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has found that these programs deliver training hours, graduation rates, racial diversity outcomes and post-graduation earnings that rival the performance of Illinois' four-year universities.

The Will County-based Apprenticeship and Skill Improvement Program, which trains workers to operate the bulldozers, cranes and other heavy equipment used to build our roads, bridges and skyscrapers, is just one example. In the last five years, the number of active apprentices enrolled in this program has grown by 84%, offering Chicago-area participants about $28 an hour plus benefits when they start their training and over $50 an hour upon graduation as journeyworkers.

As Illinois communities continue to invest in our infrastructure, demand for these workers will only grow. The imperative for local governments will be to ensure that we continue to promote investment in the private institutions that offer debt-free career training to the workforce we need.

A responsible bidder ordinance (RBO) is one such solution. It asks construction contractors seeking to work on taxpayer-funded projects to meet objective criteria and verifiable standards, including participation in registered apprenticeship training programs. In short, RBOs guarantee that projects are awarded to professional contractors with proven track records of success who are also committed to job quality and workforce development.

There are more than 100 responsible bidder ordinances throughout Illinois. Three collar counties - DuPage, Lake and Will - have adopted them. Kane County is considering passing a responsible bidder ordinance, and McHenry County could as well.

Ultimately, Illinois is rebuilding and that's a good thing. To maximize our success and realize the full potential of billions of dollars in forthcoming investments, now is the time to double down on strategies that promote value for taxpayers, job quality for our economy, and workforce stability for one of the fastest growing and most vital industries in our state. Responsible bidder ordinances have proved themselves capable of delivering.

• Frank Manzo IV, M.P.P. is an economist at the nonpartisan Illinois Economic Policy Institute.

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