Brothers and Sisters,
As the construction season nears its end, we can all look back on a strong work year. Across our jurisdiction, work in nearly all industries was excellent this year, especially considering the slowdown some industries saw last year as a result of the pandemic. Best of all, there is a lot of reason to expect that there will be even more work ahead.
In October, the Illinois State Toll Highway Authority approved around $220 million in additional construction work on the Interstate 490, which will bypass O’Hare International Airport to the west. That is an enormous project that will continue for several more years. In addition, anyone who has driven along I-294 near the District 1 Hall has seen the scale of the work that is taking place there. The entire highway is being widened and bridges are being rebuilt. The Mile Long Bridge project started in 2019 and will continue through 2023 at a total cost of almost $400 million.
Throughout 2021, the Tollway let $600 million worth of construction work, all in our area. We are in the 10th year of the 15-year, $14 billion “Move Illinois” capital program, and this capital plan has done incredible things for our regional infrastructure, all while creating good jobs. Some members may remember packing board meetings back in 2011 to encourage the Tollway to approve this capital plan. That was during the depths of the Great Recession, but we put our noses to the grindstone and now – a decade later – members are working long hours on these enormous projects. As I said, there are still five years on this capital plan, and I have every expectation that the Tollway will continue to take on large-scale improvements that are truly transformational for our infrastructure.
Also in October, Governor Pritzker held a press conference at the I-80 Bridge over the Des Plaines River in Joliet to announce a six-year, $1.2 billion plan to rebuild that bridge and the majority of I-80 through Will County. That is the bridge that Local 150 highlighted when we found bridge inspection reports that showed a dangerous level of neglect. We drew attention all over the state with billboards that warned drivers about the dangerous conditions of the bridge, and it became a major factor in the passage of Illinois’ $45 billion capital bill. I’m not shy about saying that neither the capital bill nor the recent I-80 work would have taken place without Local 150 speaking out.
Nobody knows infrastructure the way we do. This is what we do for a living, and we are professionals. When motorists drive under bridges, they don’t look up at the conditions overhead, and even if they do, they don’t see what we see. We have a responsibility to call out dangerous roads and bridges, because the past has shown that if we don’t, nobody else will.
Now we are on to the next project, working with a coalition of lawmakers and industry professionals to push for the reconstruction of the I-290 Expressway from the “Hillside strangler” into the Byrne Interchange downtown. Most of I-290’s base and shocking amount of its pavement is still from the original construction in the 1950’s. Highways back then were not built to last 70 years, and while the road has somehow managed to stay together, it certainly hasn’t kept up with traffic capacity. Even now, when half of the office buildings in the Loop are empty, every morning brings gridlock on the Eisenhower. 70 years is long enough. We are putting together a campaign to draw attention to the urgent need for a funded plan to rebuild I-290.
A new federal infrastructure funding bill is still in limbo, hostage of the typical political games in Washington. Every day that nothing is done, infrastructure continues to decay and get more expensive to fix. Unfortunately, it seems like it takes a bridge failure or other tragic crisis to get lawmakers to take action on infrastructure, and that is a disservice to every American. We will keep pushing, and identifying projects in the region that should be prioritized.
If and when infrastructure funding does come, it will boost infrastructure work to a level I haven’t seen in my career. Illinois and Indiana already have robust infrastructure budgets and the Tollway is building entire Interstates one after another. Add a meaningful federal funding plan on top of that, and our membership will be in position to work enormous hours.
Other industries have seen improvement this year as well. After a devastating slowdown last year in the early days of the pandemic, Indiana’s steel mills are busy again, and many of the mills are relining blast furnaces and doing other massive maintenance work that is keeping members busy. This is a welcome change from only a year ago, when we were encouraging members in the mills to get trained for other industries.
So much attention has been directed to supply chain interruptions and the impact that they’ve had across our economy, and the effect on the equipment rental industry is like nothing I have ever seen. Some of our area shops have billions of dollars in equipment on back-order, and rather than turn away work because they don’t have the equipment to rent, the big companies are buying up the small companies at a rate that is almost unimaginable. This is a great sign for the future of the industry, and it is also nice to see signatory shops planning to buy up small non-signatories.
Across our jurisdiction, work has been great, and a lot of it is due to our own efforts. When you get a call from the union to come to a public meeting or to send a letter to a Congressman about passing infrastructure funding, take it seriously. You may be working long hours and feel like it doesn’t matter for you, but these plans can last a decade or longer. Who would have thought back in 2011 that members would still be working massive hours on the Tollway plan? We did, and that’s why we pushed so hard for members to speak up.
On a final note, I want to talk about apprentices. This year, we brought in more than 200 operator apprentices, and they are stepping into some very demanding roles. We work our tails off to provide them as much training in the classrooms and training field as possible, but their on-the-job training plays such an important role early in their careers. If you have an apprentice on your job, take him or her under your wing. If they are struggling with something, odds are that you can help. We all learned from someone, and every member has something to teach. The apprentices are the future of our union, so let’s help prepare them to carry the torch and keep up the reputation we’ve built as the best operating engineers around.
United We Stand, Divided We Fall.