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Rauner wants vote on new Stevenson toll lanes, Madigan quickly pushes back

Gov. Bruce Rauner tried to jump start his plan to allow private companies to build toll lanes along portions of the Stevenson Expressway. (Jose M. Osorio / Chicago Tribune)

Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner Monday tried to jump-start his plan to allow private companies to build toll lanes along portions of the Stevenson Expressway, saying Democratic leaders in the General Assembly are blocking the project.

Just before the governor began speaking, Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan pushed back against the proposed project, accusing Rauner of being out to help his "wealthy friends."

More than a year after Rauner first proposed the lanes, the governor returned to the same Illinois Department of Transportation yard in McCook where’d he first announced the plan, and Monday he railed against Madigan for holding it up. The public-private partnership requires an OK from the General Assembly. State lawmakers have held hearings on the idea, but they haven’t voted on it.

Rauner and his team tried to ratchet up pressure for a vote by floating an April 1 deadline ahead of the news conference in an op-ed by IDOT Secretary Randy Blankenhorn in the Tribune. In it, Blankenhorn warned that "investors will walk away" if lawmakers haven’t approved the plan by that date.

"Today we are requesting your help, the help of all the media and the people across the state of Illinois, to advocate strongly to move forward now on one of the most important job-creating projects that we can pursue as a state," Rauner said.

The governor later called on reporters to "ask the speaker what happened, if you all would ask the members of the General Assembly what happened, that would be great."

Madigan, too, tried to get ahead of the issue by firing off a statement before the news conference had started. He said the Rauner administration had failed to explain how the idea would benefit taxpayers.

"Our concern with private investors being involved in a toll lane is that, once again, it seems as though Gov. Rauner is more interested in helping his wealthy friends," the Madigan statement said. "Despite multiple requests for information over several months, IDOT hasn’t prepared a plan that would lay out the costs, results and anticipated tolls. IDOT hasn’t provided any evidence demonstrating that this project will save taxpayer dollars or result in better maintained roads. We continue to await this information."

Rauner was dismissive of the Madigan statement. "Have you ever read baloney before?" he said.

Blankenhorn said Madigan’s assertion that the administration hadn’t provided information was "absolutely not true," noting that there had been five hearings on the idea. But he conceded that some unanswered questions did remain.

"To a certain extent, until we go out for a (request for proposal), you don’t know what the bids are going to look like. There are certain things we can’t answer about how much money it’s going to bring in and what that looks like until that happens," Blankenhorn said. "They know that. This isn’t new to them."

The proposal would allow private companies to build toll lanes along congested portions of the Stevenson Expressway and then collect a portion of the revenue from the drivers that use them. Those lanes could be ready by 2020 if the General Assembly approved the project by the end of this month, Blankenhorn said. Tolls would be charged using a dynamic pricing system where drivers would pay more to use the lanes during times of greater congestion.

A 2010 study by the Illinois Tollway, the Metropolitan Planning Council and the consulting firm Wilbur Smith Associates found that the project would make commutes faster in both the toll lanes and the free lanes. The study projected that the toll lanes would generate about $24 million in tolls each year.

The toll lane project is one of a series of privatization proposals that Rauner has floated during his time in office, only to have the ideas blocked or slowed down by Democrats. Rauner also wants to sell the James R. Thompson Center, the massive, worn Loop office building that’s owned by the state. And he wanted to create a private foundation that would raise money on behalf of the Illinois State Fair. Rauner formed the foundation on his own last year after legislation approving the idea stalled in the General Assembly.

Last week, Rauner’s administration moved to lay off 124 prison nurses, with plans to replace them with contract nurses. Privatization of state jobs has also been a key stumbling block in Rauner’s contract standoff with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, with the governor insisting on provisions that would make it easier to outsource work to the private sector.

Rauner’s privatization push could become a theme of the 2018 campaign as Democrats try to cast the wealthy businessman Rauner as out of touch with the needs of average voters. Democrat Chris Kennedy didn’t miss a chance to seize on it Monday as he appeared at a gubernatorial candidate forum hosted by the Cook County Democratic Party.

"I think privatization is really risky," Kennedy said. "He’s trying to do it with the nurses in the prisons. He’s trying to do it with the State of Illinois building. I think it’s a way for pinstripe patronage to flourish and for him to make his wealthy friends in hedge funds and private equity wealthier than they are."

Rauner has argued that involving the private sector in government projects will protect taxpayers and help create jobs.

"This is not rocket science, ladies and gentlemen," Rauner said of the I-55 idea. "This is a commonsense way to grow an economy, create jobs and protect taxpayers."

Chicago Tribune’s Rick Pearson contributed.

Twitter @kimgeiger