Five major university capital projects stalled; $14 million spent on design and planning

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western Illinois state university performing arts center rendering
Rendering of the performing arts center for Western Illinois University, one the major capital projects approved in 2009, but which never got out of the ground.

They are projects meant not to be, at least not yet. Some eight years after the former Illinois government approved massive capital projects for university campuses, half of the largest new projects have never risen out of the ground and have been cancelled or indefinitely halted.

The Chicago Tribune reports that the five canned projects cost more than $14 million in planning and design costs. Some were “launched” with great fanfare.

Those facilities — slated for Western Illinois University, Illinois State University, Northeastern Illinois University, Chicago State University and the University of Illinois at Chicago — were approved in 2009 but never received full funding to begin construction, The Tribune has reported.

A spokesman for Gov. Bruce Rauner says that the bond funds intended to pay for the projects have run out and that the legislature did not include those items among expenditures approved in the new state budget.

Project managers and university officials say that even if more money became available, the initial designs and construction plans would need to be updated and project costs would be larger after such a long wait.

As an example, Western Illinois spent $4 million on preliminary plans for a 130,000-sq. ft. performing arts center. The cost of the on-hold $72 million project has increased by $10 million because of the funding delay.

“Each day that goes by without an increase in the project budget results in a reduction to the building scope due to price increases in the construction industry,” spokeswoman Darcie Shinberger said in a statement emailed to The Tribune.

Former Gov. Pat Quinn‘s spokesperson William Morgan said the projects would have been completed if he had remained in office. Quinn signed the capital spending initiative into law in 2009 and attended groundbreaking ceremonies at several of the schools. However, grants were sometimes delayed if the administration decided the projects were not ready for funding.

The Tribune reports that while Morgan said the Quinn administration had planned to continue the construction program, records show that revenues set aside to support the initiative — including taxes on video gambling — were falling dramatically short of expectations. Those shortfalls limited the state’s ability to sell the necessary bonds.

When Rauner succeeded Quinn as governor in 2015, he issued an executive order that temporarily froze construction grants for state-funded projects to review the spending as part of an emergency budget measure.

Now, the administration considers the five major public university projects still waiting on their grants to be expired because of a lack of funding and reapproval by the legislature.

The Tribune says the projects were part of the 2009 Illinois Jobs Now! initiative, the state’s first multi-year capital program approved in over a decade, which included $1.6 billion in authorized spending for higher education, including community colleges and private institutions as well as state-owned schools.

The state committed to selling construction bonds totaling $16 billion to pay for much of the program. The bonds were backed by a series of new taxes, fees and revenues intended to pay for the borrowing without affecting Illinois’ operating budget.

In the program’s first three years, the state borrowed more than $4 billion, which was spent on everything from roads and bridges to plans for a new airport in Peotone to building a 16-inch softball hall of fame.

However, this spring the state legislature’s Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability, a bi-partisan organization, reported that the capital program has run its course after selling only $12.7 billion of capital bonds.

Now, the only way the universities can get state capital funds for the five stalled projects is to compete for limited annual capital dollars — or hope the governor and legislature pass a new multi-year capital program with additional revenue to support it, The Tribune reports.

Rauner spokesman Jason Schaumburg said the governor still would like to restart the university projects that are on hold.

“The General Assembly did not include appropriations for some of those projects. We encourage them to re-evaluate so these projects can be completed,” Schaumburg wrote in an email to the Tribune.

“The governor’s office is reviewing the budget, and decisions, including potential bond sales, have not yet been made,” Schaumburg said.

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