Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Paying to play: Illinois Governor Blagojevich's "Green Lanes" have a familiar ring in Texas

Illinois Governor Blagojevich Saw Personal Green in Toll Lane Idea

Illinois governor arrested for approving a toll lane project in return for campaign cash.

Copyright 2008

The green in Governor Rod R. Blagojevich's "Green Lane" tolling proposal was headed to the pocket of the Illinois Democrat, according to charges filed this weekend.

Most of the attention drawn to yesterday's arrest of Blagojevich and his chief of staff, John Harris, has centered on the governor's reported attempt to sell the US Senate seat being vacated by President-elect Barack Obama (D).

Blagojevich's "Tomorrow's Transportation Today" scheme to impose new tolls on motorists for the enrichment of his personal campaign contributors has received less scrutiny. Blagojevich took office in 2003 after his predecessor, George Ryan (R) was similarly arrested for corruption.

"If (Illinois) isn't the most corrupt state, it's one hell of a competitor," Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Special Agent-in-Charge Robert D. Grant said yesterday. "Even the most cynical agents in our shop were shocked."

According to the indictment, a wealthy contractor promised on October 6 to make a $500,000 donation to the Friends of Blagojevich campaign account. Nine days later, the governor announced the $1.8 billion program whose centerpiece was the addition of High Occupancy Toll (HOT) lanes to the Illinois Tollway -- an extra layer of toll collection on existing lanes within the already tolled roadway. The beauty of the Tomorrow's Transportation Today concept was that it could be easily expanded to other parts of the state transportation network.

"I could have made a larger announcement but wanted to see how they perform by the end of the year," Blagojevich said in private conversation. "If they don't perform, [expletive] 'em."

According to the most recent campaign disclosures filed, Blagojevich had raised $1.9 million for his campaign in the first six months of 2008. FBI agents seized the campaign ledgers and suggested that Blagojevich's goal was to reach $2.5 million by the end of the year.

After bugging the Blagojevich campaign office, agents intercepted a phone call where the governor emphasized to contractors the need to raise the additional campaign money before January 1, 2009. On that date, a new ethics law designed to stop "Pay for Play" will prohibit companies with state contracts worth more than $50,000 from making donations to officials that approve contracts.

Green Lane construction is not scheduled to begin until 2010. Under the current plans, contractors would be given $400 million in taxpayer money to install extra tolling infrastructure on the existing, already tolled lanes on 41 miles of Interstate 294 -- the Green Lanes would not create any new capacity. The extra tolls imposed on drivers would would then be handed to contractors to build expensive interchange replacement projects for the benefit of campaign donors with ties to the concrete industry.

This is not the first scandal involving HOT lanes.
  • In 2002, the Orange County, California Transportation Authority paid the contractors who built the 91 Express Lanes $207.5 million to get out from under a cleverly written non-compete contract. The lanes only cost $139 million to build.
  • Earlier this year, an Australian tolling contractor admitted it had made $177,000 in illegal campaign contributions to Virginia Governor Tim Kaine (D) and members of both parties in the General Assembly. Contractors that run HOT lanes stand to pocket millions even from legitimate deals because tolling by its nature is inherently inefficient.
The best run toll roads in the country spend an average of 22 percent of the tolls collected from drivers on nothing but toll collection overhead (details).

Blagojevich and Harris are charged with solicitation of bribery and conspiracy to commit wire fraud. Both face 20 years in prison and up to $500,000 in fines.

A full copy of the indictment is available in a 650k PDF file at the source link below.

Source: PDF File Criminal Complaint for US v. Blagojevich (US District Court, Northern District of Illinois, 12/9/2008)

© 2008

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