CHAMPAIGN — A federal transportation bill approved by Congress in late June will help Illinois, U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin said Wednesday, but it's not enough.
Speaking at the Illinois Department of Transportation maintenance yard along Interstate 57 north of Champaign, Durbin said Congress still must provide funding for Amtrak and eventually will have to approve a longer-term transportation bill. The bill passed in June is good for about 27 months.
He said the new law means more money for Illinois and cited this summer's $9.45 million resurfacing of I-57 between Thomasboro and Interstate 74 as an example of the kind of projects the transportation bill would bring. The transportation bill provides $5.67 billion for Illinois highways and mass transit the next two years.
"There were a lot of people who wanted to cut the spending on transportation. But at the end of the day, we ended up bringing a larger share of federal money back to Illinois than we have in the last 15 years, so it was a real win for our state," Durbin said.
State Sen. Mike Frerichs, D-Champaign, commended Durbin for his role in passing the transportation bill.
"I think he probably is a little modest, a little humble about his role. As the Number 2 man in the Senate, I think he can claim credit for the amount of dollars coming back and to make sure that we are getting our fair share for greatly needed improvements in infrastructure," Frerichs said. "I want to publicly encourage him to make sure he continues to represent the state of Illinois for many years to come because we're going to need a lot more help than this."
Durbin said infrastructure projects are important for the jobs they provide immediately and in the future.
"The best economic development we can make in America is building things here that will service the generations to come, creating and keeping good-paying jobs all the way across this country," Durbin said. "I want to make sure that we extend this highway bill beyond the three years that it's here to bring us promises to come of economic development and job creation."
The next step, Durbin said, is to pass funding for Amtrak.
"We could have put money in for Amtrak," Durbin said of the transportation bill. "But they wouldn't include it, the Republicans in the House refused to include it, to make Amtrak more reliable and safer. But they're opposed to Amtrak as a government program."
Durbin said he hoped to increase Amtrak funding "so that they could improve their scheduling."
"It's still going to be authorized and appropriated, but in terms of the investments that we need for more high-speed rail and for the current service outside of the high-speed rail corridors, this bill does not include that," he explained.
It's unclear for now how the higher level of transportation funding will help East Central Illinois, IDOT officials said, except it will move up the state's multi-year schedule of projects.
"It will move forward the schedule," said Chuck Ingersoll, in the IDOT office of planning and programming. "Anything that's in the program now is a commitment from the department."
Among the area projects in IDOT's current four-year plan are a $1.3 million pedestrian overpass over I-57 at Curtis Road, resurfacing of I-74 between Mahomet and I-57, resurfacing of I-74 from Urbana to just west of Danville, and resurfacing of U.S. 45 from Rantoul to Thomasboro.
Durbin said the transportation bill is free of controversial earmarks, a process that he continues to defend.
"I support earmarks. I want to make that clear, because it's my opportunity as a senator and the opportunity of House members to identify the key priorities back home," he said. "Now it's changed, and the priorities are going to come through the Illinois Department of Transportation."
Durbin also said Wednesday that he's worried that a new farm bill will not be passed this year.
"This is like the transportation bill. We passed a transportation bill in the Senate on a bipartisan vote, 74 voted for it, I believe, and the House couldn't pass the bill. They just kept extending the old bill. Finally we went to conference and worked out a bill close to the Senate bill," he said. "Same thing with the farm bill. 72 Democrats and Republicans vote for it in the Senate and the House can't pass a bill.
"So what we said to them is if you can't pass a bill and you're only going to be in session for eight or nine days in September, at least call the Senate bill. The farm groups are saying they want some certainty about what it's going to be like for the next five years. I would say to the House Republican leadership if you can't pass a bipartisan bill, for goodness sakes at least call the Senate bill."
But he said Speaker John Boehner has already said he won't call for a House vote on a farm bill.
"This is inexcusable. They have known, we have known that the farm bill was expiring. They didn't act on it in the House and now we're running out of time," Durbin said. "That to me is a sad commentary on his leadership."