CHICAGO – Several Illinois state representatives here hosted a public hearing April 16 at the Austin Town Hall on the city’s west side in an effort to build support for the passage of a comprehensive transportation infrastructure program.

Over 100 people attended the hearing, including local elected officials, business leaders, labor representatives and community organizations. Individuals representing these groups testified about the need for state funds for an infrastructure program through the proposed capital budget plan. Such a plan is expected to create thousands of jobs and spur economic development throughout Chicago.

It’s been 10 years since a comprehensive capital budget plan in Illinois was passed, and now it’s time for a new one, those who spoke charged.

At the hearing, state lawmakers, most of whom represent Chicago and all Democrats, remarked on the need to pass the plan and reflected on the various themes at the public hearing. Speakers addressed important issues, such as the poor conditions of roads, highways, bridges and city streets, rising unemployment and foreclosure rates, the environment, the need of healthcare services and the increasing student dropout rate in public schools.

Thirty-two percent of Illinois’ major roads are in poor or mediocre condition. Seventy-five percent of state highways are nearing the end of their original design life. The state’s official unemployment rate is nearing nine percent, a 15-year high. Over half a million workers were unemployed in Illinois as of January 2009.

“We have a real opportunity to turn our local economy around and modernize our infrastructure, and today’s hearing showed us that there is a great deal of community support behind our efforts,” said State Rep. Deborah Graham. “We have a lot of work to do in the coming weeks, but with groups that normally don’t see eye-to-eye coming together behind a broad capital plan, I am optimistic that we will be able to pass a jobs bill for Illinois.’

State Rep. John Bradley, who led a presentation at the beginning of the hearing, explained that based on his experience in traveling to different parts of the state, “all regions have different infrastructure needs and concerns.”

“I have been to more than 13 of these hearings in the past few weeks, and while I hear differing local needs, the overall message that we need a broad and accountable capital plan is echoed everywhere,” Bradley emphasized.

“I hear every day from people who are out of work and want a shot at a good-paying job,” said State Rep. La Shawn Ford. “These types of public works projects pay a decent wage, and there’s no reason for able-bodied Illinoisans to wonder how they are going to feed their families when there is so much work that needs to be done.’

Echoing that point, State Rep. Cynthia Soto added, “The only way we are going to turn our economy around is to turn our unemployment crisis around, and what better way to do this than by putting people back to work in their own communities, fixing up their own neighborhoods?”

With the passage of the plan, state lawmakers intend to fund projects that would improve roads, lead construction plans and maintenance of all state-owned facilities. A push for environmental and conservation projects, mass transit, aviation programs and elementary and secondary school construction grants will also take shape under the plan. Overall, state lawmakers plan to focus on economic development through infrastructure construction, education, environmental protection and business development.

The transparency of the construction plan was a key issue for State Rep. Arthur Turner. Taxpayers need to know how their dollars are spent. “At the same time, we need to make sure these jobs are open to all, including minorities, so we can have an investment in the communities that struggle every day with the web of problems caused by poverty and hopelessness,” said Turner.

State Rep. Karen Yarbrough added, “As we move forward with an infrastructure improvement plan, we need to think smart and invest in improvements that lead us towards a more sustainable and environmentally-friendly economy.” Yarbrough noted, “Our reliance on petroleum helped get us into this mess, and we need to do all that we can to distance ourselves from the policies of the past.”

At a panel on labor issues, Dennis Gannon, president of the Chicago Federation of Labor, said that the city’s 46 percent foreclosure rate has to do directly with the high unemployment rate. “We need to ask our state legislators to have the courage to pass this capital bill and put people back to work all across Illinois,” he said.