In the final days of the spring legislative session, Illinois lawmakers paved the way for the state’s first major public works program since 2009 by approving significant tax and fee hikes.
To help finance the long-awaited $45 billion capital construction program, legislators from both parties voted to bump up state charges for gasoline, cigarettes, vehicle registration and more following a series of behind-the-scenes negotiations.
Tax hikes are a sensitive topic for any politician, but especially so for Republicans who fashion themselves as fiscal conservatives and Democrats as wasteful and tax happy. In a recent radio interview, House Republican Leader Jim Durkin of Western Springs was asked to defend the increases to Illinoisans who feel they’re being nickeled and dimed by the state.
“We’re at a point right now in Illinois where we have to make the investment in our infrastructure,” Durkin said on WGN Radio. “There are parts of I-80 near Joliet that school buses are not allowed to cross because of the fragile nature of a bridge. That is just one example of many which reflect this necessity to make this investment.”
It’s indisputable that concerns over the state’s neglected infrastructure are on the rise, not only in the suburbs and downstate but also in Chicago, where a crack in a bridge support beam forced the shutdown of Lake Shore Drive in February.
That same month, Joliet’s mayor sounded the alarm about the condition of parallel bridges on Interstate 80 that cross the Des Plaines River in each direction in his city.
Initially, the mayor warned he would divert traffic away from the bridges if the state failed to step in, but he backed away from the threat after the Illinois Department of Transportation concluded they remained safe for travel and promised maintenance work would soon begin.
That left us wondering where Durkin was getting his information about the school buses, so we decided to dig into the issue.
No orders not to cross
In early February, Chicago’s CBS station drew attention to the I-80 bridges, noting that a 2018 state inspection used terms like “intolerable” and a “high priority for replacement” to describe the structural condition of the westbound span.
IDOT insisted the bridges remain safe for travel, but concern is still high among area residents, who even if they missed the news reports may have seen warning messages on billboards off the highway, paid for by a union local whose members do infrastructure work.
Illinois is home to more than 2,270 of the 47,000 bridges in the nation considered structurally deficient, according to the American Road and Transportation Builders Association. Elsewhere in the Midwest, residents have witnessed firsthand what can happen when major infrastructure fails: In 2007, an interstate bridge collapsed over the Mississippi River in downtown Minneapolis, killing 13 people and injured 145 others.
Despite widespread public concern, however, we could find no evidence that Joliet school buses had been prohibited from traversing the I-80 bridges with students aboard.
A spokeswoman for Joliet Township High School District told us the district had no policy against crossing the bridges and said she hadn’t heard of any others in the area instituting such orders.
Likewise, a spokeswoman for the district that runs Joliet’s elementary and junior high schools said it did not have a policy barring use of the bridges, though she said bus drivers had been instructed to avoid the interstate if possible mostly due to frequent traffic congestion. At that, however, the spokeswoman said officials of her district had engaged in considerable discussion about the safety of the bridges with the state and city as well as concerned parents who had requested their children not be bused along that route.
Indeed, officials we spoke with at several school districts in the Joliet area described the I-80 corridor in general as a safety hazard, pointing to a high volume of trucks traveling at high speeds.
“It’s not a safe road to travel on at certain times of the day regardless of the bridges,” said Rusty Ragon, superintendent for Manhattan School District 114 southeast of Joliet.
A 2018 report from the Illinois Economic Policy Institute found the design of the 16-mile stretch of I-80 that traverses Joliet, much of it two-lanes in each direction, is insufficient to handle existing traffic — 20 percent of which is comprised of heavy trucks. It also noted 37 fatal crashes had occurred there between 2001 and 2016.
The state has been studying the transportation needs of the area. Plans are now in the works to replace 10 smaller bridges along I-80 in Joliet, according to IDOT spokesman Guy Tridgell.
The department will now have the funds to rebuild the Des Plaines River bridges as well thanks in part to the new state capital program, Tridgell told us in an email. IDOT has not yet finalized the timeline for these projects, however.
In the meanwhile, the bridges remain open to all traffic and the state has no plans at this time to restrict vehicle crossings, Tridgell confirmed.
So if neither the state nor any Joliet-area school districts had issued a ban on bridge bus use, where did Durkin’s information come from?
Eleni Demertzis, a spokeswoman for the Republican leader, traced it back to the transportation department at Lincoln-Way Community High School District to the east of Joliet, which she said had complied with individual requests not to take I-80.
Lincoln-Way officials did not respond to our specific questions about whether any overarching policy changes were made in response to bridge conditions. But a spokeswoman pointed out the boundaries of that district boundaries lie far east of the bridges so there would be little need for its buses to travel over them.
Durkin said, “There are parts of I-80 near Joliet that school buses are not allowed to cross because of the fragile nature of a bridge.”
Neither state transportation officials nor any of the Joliet-area school district officials we spoke with could identify such a policy and Durkin’s office couldn’t point us to one.
Some districts do try to avoid taking the interstate whenever possible, though, not just because of the bridges but also because of traffic congestion through Joliet and heavy trucks often barrelling at high speeds away from town.
So Durkin’s on firm ground when it comes to his broader point about the critical need for infrastructure investment in the area following years of neglect. However, he underscored that argument with a sloppy example that does not match up with the facts.
We rate his claim Mostly False.
MOSTLY FALSE – The statement contains an element of truth but ignores critical facts that would give a different impression.
Click here for more on the six PolitiFact ratings and how we select facts to check.