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Southern Illinois seeks funding for campuses, highway expansion

SIU leader says ‘we need cranes on our campus’

John Dunn, interim chancellor of Southern Illinois University
John Dunn, interim chancellor of Southern Illinois University

SPRINGFIELD – Local officials from southern Illinois told state lawmakers Monday that their highest priorities in a possible public works package are upgrades to college and university campuses and expansion of regional highways.

That expansion would include a proposed “Southwest Illinois Connector” linking the Carbondale and Murphysboro areas to the eastern edge of the St. Louis metropolitan area.

“I don’t think you can separate roads from an institution like [Southern Illinois University]-Carbondale,” said Marc Kiehna, a Randolph County commissioner and a leading proponent of the proposed connector highway.

Kiehna was one of several people who spoke during a joint meeting in Edwardsville of two Senate subcommittees that are putting together a proposed multibillion-dollar public works package, known among lawmakers as a “capital bill.”

Illinois last approved a major public works package in 2009 during Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn’s administration, and several people told the Senate panel that another is long overdue.

“During the last four years, we had a governor that wasn’t helpful to Illinois, did not want to invest in our state and was willing to let our universities, roads and bridges crumble to achieve his political goal,” said Charles “Totsie” Bailey of the Southwest Illinois Building and Trades Council, referring to former Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner.

Officials from the Southern Illinois University system presented a long list of projects, starting with an
$83 million plan to refurbish the aging mass communications and media arts building and a $98 million science building on the Carbondale campus. The university also is hoping for a new education building for its medical school campus in Springfield.

In addition to those projects, however, John Dunn, interim chancellor of the SIU-Carbondale campus, said the school has a backlog of about
$700 million worth of “deferred maintenance” projects.

“Visually, we need cranes on our campus,” he said. “Cranes on the campus send a powerful message to the public at large that we’re alive and well, we’re working forward and we’re creating jobs.”

The Southwest Illinois Connector project, meanwhile, is one that officials in the area have been talking about for years. It calls for expanding a number of highway routes from two lanes to four in Jackson, Monroe, Perry and Randolph counties.

Although no formal cost estimates have been released, Kiehna said, the entire project – including engineering, land acquisition and actual construction – probably would be about
$400 million.

“I understand that maybe some things have to be built in segments,” he told the panel. “I’m not opposed to that if we can see some movement.”

As lawmakers listened to the presentations, however, there was little consensus among officials about how to pay for the projects. Some officials acknowledged that an increase in motor fuel taxes might be needed to fund highway programs, although some noted that the current motor fuel tax already is higher than in surrounding states.

Monday’s meeting in Edwardsville was the second in a series of regional meetings that the Senate committees are holding across the state. The next meeting is scheduled for March 18 in Decatur.

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