Pyke: Transportation agencies wading through Rauner's orders
Is Gov. Bruce Rauner's word law or are growing pains emerging as he and a massive state bureaucracy come to grips?
Sworn in last week, Rauner has vowed to put the state on a spending diet to grapple with its dire financial condition.
The push for frugality actually started before he took office. On Nov. 20, Rauner asked for a state hiring freeze, which was essentially shrugged off by then Gov. Pat Quinn's administration.
Then on Jan. 12, Rauner ordered state agencies to put new contracts on hold with some exceptions. This created a few gasps and some head-scratching among state and local transportation executives gearing up for a busy summer of road work.
The governor's staff later clarified the order but there's still some lurking confusion, which I'll get to shortly.
As for the hiring freeze, a Freedom of Information Act request to the Illinois tollway authority showed that 13 employees started jobs at the agency after Rauner's appeal. One equipment operator laborer began Nov. 24 and 12 other employees came on board in December and January. Those included seven laborers, a disbursement control supervisor, a payroll analyst, a mechanic, a customer relations coordinator and a legal intern.
Do the hires run counter to the spirit of the incoming governor's request? Tollway spokeswoman Wendy Abrams said the authority did factor that in when making decisions about hiring. Officials "moved forward with a select number of hires that are essential to the day-to-day operations of our agency," Abrams said, noting "all of the positions were posted before November, with 12 posted in June 2014 or earlier."
"Among the 13 essential employees, eight were hired to drive snowplows and emergency vehicles and are critical to the safety of our roadways. Others work in accounts payable, support legal staff, process payroll, maintain and repair tollway vehicles and staff the mailroom."
All hires followed state protocols involving skills testing, formal interviews by a panel, scoring and ranking of candidates, physical evaluations when warranted plus drug and alcohol and criminal background checks, Abrams said.
Asked for reaction to the hires, Rauner's Communications Director Lance Trover said Rauner "is conducting a thorough review of all executive agencies, which is why he has signed executive orders addressing hiring and spending within state government. The review will be conducted in a timely and thorough manner."
For the record, the tollway also posted 11 jobs starting on Nov. 13.
Since Rauner's Jan. 12 order curtailing spending and calling for a review of all personnel decisions and contracts, "the tollway has postponed the hiring of new employees and removed all job postings," Abrams said.
Regarding the edict on construction contracts, a follow-up from the administration stated that contracts could move forward if they were for capital projects where construction had already started. But Rauner wants all proposed contracts or grants or amendments to be scrutinized by his office of management and budget.
When asked for specifics, Trover said the tollway can continue and hire contractors for the Jane Addams widening and the Elgin-O'Hare Expressway extension, two major jobs supposed to continue this spring and summer.
He confirmed the controversial Illiana Expressway, connecting I-65 in Indiana with I-55 near Joliet, must be scrutinized.
As for smaller projects like Illinois Department of Transportation intersection improvements, Trover clarified that IDOT would need to submit those items for review "but the intent is to not significantly impact capital construction outside of major projects."
You can bet there will be a dump truck full of county engineers waiting eagerly to see if projects they're coordinating with IDOT will move forward fast. That's because "this is the planning season for construction season," explained tollway Director James Sweeney, vice president of the International Union of Operating Engineers and president of Local 150. "Now is when (you) make your plans and bid your jobs so you're ready to go when the weather cooperates."
Ticket to ride
Got a kid who uses Megabus to bring his/her laundry home from college? You're not alone. Intercity bus travel is ramping up in the U.S., according to a study by DePaul University's Chaddick Institute for Metropolitan Development. Bus companies added more than 100 new services in 2014, a 2 percent jump from 2013. One reason is more flexibility that bus carriers offer to change departure times, researchers found. City-to-city operations by express bus companies has nearly doubled from 589 in 2010 to 1,066 in 2014.
Reader Jennifer Johnston, whose son attends Harper College, is concerned that "as the new semester begins, the bike path along Euclid is not plowed again. It is disheartening to see these kids trying to get to school."
Turns out the bike path is owned by the Palatine Park District. Superintendent of Parks Ed Tynczuk explained it's part of 11 miles of off-road trails, of which the district plows a short section that's easily accessible and used for winter recreation. "The main issue with maintaining the entire path systems revolves around the daily inspection and possible salting of the path after it is cleared," Tynczuk said. "This combined with the damage caused by the plows and salt to the surrounding turf has prevented us from taking on any additional snow removal duties along the Palatine Trail."
Got a concern about unshoveled sidewalks? Opinions on transportation and the new governor? Drop me a line at mpyke@dailyherald. I'm still accepting winter driving tips and questions -- the first few emailers will get free tickets to the Chicago Auto Show, Feb. 14 to 22.