Understaffed Illinois DOT could lose stimulus funds

| 2/11/2009

The last thing Illinois transportation officials want is to be left without funding from a proposed economic stimulus package being finalized on Capitol Hill. The worst-case scenario is that it could happen, but officials are taking steps to prevent it.

The Federal Highway Administration wrote to the Illinois Department of Transportation in early February with concerns that IDOT was understaffed and may not be equipped to carry out $1 billion in projects outlined in the proposed federal stimulus bill.

FHWA officials urged state officials to take “urgent actions” with staffing and project planning or, under a worst-case scenario, face the possibility of losing funds.

Paris Ervin, an IDOT spokeswoman, said her department is taking the FHWA letter not as a threat but as a guideline that includes staffing recommendations.

“We are committed and do what is necessary to obtain the funding available to get transportation projects underway,” Ervin told Land Line.

Ervin said Illinois has a stimulus task force to make sure Illinois doesn’t lose out. She said the state is not releasing the contents of the FHWA letter.

“They’re telling us what we need to do before it’s too late,” Ervin said. “We appreciate the assistance by the FHWA. They’re getting ready to distribute a large sum of money. This is something new for states.”

Most of what the FHWA is urging IDOT to do is procedural, she said, including updates to the state’s six-year, $16.6-billion project list and addressing staffing issues.

According to a report by The Associated Press, IDOT had 7,800 employees in 2002 but that number decreased to 6,250 in 2008. Unfilled openings, layoffs, hiring freezes and a voluntary retirement package initiated in 2003 by then Gov. Rod Blagojevich are all factors according to the report.

Ervin was not able to confirm the numbers used in The AP report. She said the FHWA letter did not provide an exact number for how IDOT should be staffed.

“We are in daily contact with FHWA,” she said.

– By David Tanner, staff writer