CHICAGO - The Illinois State Toll Highway Authority's inspector general will review the planning process undertaken by the agency to craft its new $1.8 billion capital program, a move its board hopes will quell concerns that the plan was rushed through to give Gov. Rod Blagojevich leverage in raising campaign funds.
The $1.8 billion, bond-financed program, which would establish car pool lanes, was approved by the tollway board last month. It was referred to in the 76-page affidavit that was part of the federal criminal complaint lodged against the governor and his former chief of staff John Harris earlier this month.
In a series of pay-to-play allegations outlined in the complaint, the governor is accused of seeking $50,000 in campaign contributions from a concrete business with the promise that it could benefit from the authority's new capital program. Truckers who will pay higher tolls to fund the plan have questioned the agency's motives and the speed with which it approved the plan, which was unveiled in September.
"The board chairman John Mitola has asked the inspector general to review the planning process. He wants assurance that the process was not manipulated. It's a review, not an investigation," said authority spokeswoman Joelle McGinnis. The tollway's inspector general, Tracy Smith, reports to the board.
While Mitola defended the plan and the staff's work on it, the agency won't formally move forward with it or award any contracts until a new executive director is in place to manage the program next year.
The authority's executive director, Jeffrey S. Dailey, resigned abruptly last week, just two months after the board named him to the position. Published reports attributed his departure in part to concerns over the future of the capital program and over the security of his position following the governor's arrest.
However, tollway officials attributed his departure to his concerns over his ability to take an engineering position in the coming years. Under state rules, officials have to wait one year to take a job with a company they regulated. Most officials receive waivers to the rule from the state ethics commission and can take the job, but are banned from doing business with their former agency for one year.
The attorney general's office recently challenged the waiver request of Dailey's predecessor, Brian McPartlin, to take a job with a firm that received tollway contracts, and he dropped the request. Dawn Catuara will serve as interim director while the board searches for a replacement.
The new plan calls for the construction of two new interstate interchanges and bus and ride-sharing commuter lanes. Despite the program's swift passage following a series of public hearings, McGinnis said the agency had worked on the plan for at least a year as the second phase of the $6.3 billion capital plan now underway.
The authority will repay the additional debt to be issued under a junior pledge, with higher toll revenues expected to come from an increase in the rate paid by commercial vehicles and premium rates single motorists will be charged who use the new lanes. Buses and car pool vehicles that use the agency's electronic tolling device known as the I-PASS will pay the current rates.
The authority is issuing new-money debt on an as-needed basis through 2010 to finance the 12-year, $6.3 billion capital program that includes rebuilding of roads and toll plazas that are being altered to accommodate electronic tolling and relieve congestion.
The tollway's $3.4 billion of senior lien debt is rated AA-minus by Fitch Ratings and Standard & Poor's and Aa3 by Moody's Investors Service.