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Q&A: IDOT Secretary Omer Osman On Steering The $45 Billion Rebuild Illinois Infrastructure Plan

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Tim Shelley/WCBU
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Illinois Secretary of Transportation Omer Osman at an October 2020 press conference celebrating the completion of the Murray Baker Bridge repair project.

Illinois Secretary of Transportation Omer Osman has called Peoria home for more than 30 years. Gov. JB Pritzker has placed the transportation veteran at the helm of executing the $45 billion Rebuild Illinois plan.

Tim Shelley recently sat down with Osman for a wide-ranging interview.

TIM SHELLEY: I just want to start with your personal story. You have a fascinating personal story of how you came to Peoria and how you came to IDOT.

OMER OSMAN: Oh my goodness. First of all, I'm from East Africa, in the Sudan, right there by Egypt, where see Saudi Arabia, in that area. But back in the early '80s, my family encouraged me to make it to the USA, to study engineering in particular. So I did and I went to school in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, started at LSU. Louisiana State.

And then, right there, it was Southern University, which is a historically black college. Getting my civil engineering degree from there in the late, late '80s. It just happened to be that one colleague of mine who was a couple of years ahead of me, in school, she was from Chicago. She graduated, she moved back to Chicago, started working for the Illinois Department of Transportation. And the department decided to send her back to Baton Rouge to recruit as you can imagine, back in early '89.

She recruited me and that's how I wind up in Illinois to begin with. Particularly in in District Four, Peoria, Illinois, where, where I moved to. And back in the late '80s, so to speak, not a whole lot of internet, not a whole lot of research. But the only thing I knew about Peoria was Caterpillar. And Caterpillar is a nationally known company. So it struck a chord with me that I get to go to Peoria see what Caterpillar is, all about the manufacturing and the technology and all that stuff. And from there on progressively, the last 32 years or so, has been with the department on or off.

TIM SHELLEY: And now you are the secretary, as of June 1, the official director of the Illinois Department of Transportation, and that's a big role.

OMER OSMAN: It is. It is a huge role. It is actually a privilege. The role for me is complex. It's not an easy role, for sure. But coming through through the Department gives me a little bit of an advantage of knowing how the department works, what is working what is not what needs to be tweaked.

You know, I do have 5200 employees. Each and every one of them is just as as good as it gets, is what I say from from my highway maintainers, to our engineering technicians, to our technical managers, our clerical staff, to our civil engineers.

So it's a great organization to be in is one of the leading DOTs in the nation. So I'm very, very proud that the governor has trusted me with this responsibility of leading a department... and I like to say this a lot. What we do at the department impacts people is visible and impacts people immediately. And it's just out there. People who see what we do.

TIM SHELLEY: And you and your department have an especially big role here of implementing the governor's capital bill, which is the first one in 10 years. Obviously, that means there's a lot of stuff backlogged, there's a lot of needs that went unmet all that time. And now it's in your hands to figure out, what do I do first?

And I like to say it's the first one that's truly multimodal. It is not just about roadways and bridges; it's about each and every mode of transportation we have in the state from ports to aeronautics to transit specifically up north and down the state. Each and every mode of transportation is impacted by what we call Rebuild Illinois, RBI,

$45 billion, about 69 or 70% of it is going directly to transportation, you know, the majority of it obviously, because we are huge and complex state. We are at the transportation hub of the nation, especially, when it comes to freight. Our interstate system is third largest in the in the nation.

So, it does require us, number one, to manage the asset as we have it. So, a lot of the a lot of the cash flow that is provided to us by RBI is going through to the asset management portion. And I'd like to say at least two thirds of it is managing our interstates. Many units specifically are bridges.

When you look at the Mississippi River, you look at the Ohio River, and you look at the Wabash River, you know, we are surrounded by those rivers. And then you look at the Illinois River that's dissecting the state. All that requires major, major river bridges. And all these bridges were built back in the '50s, '60s. They are aging and in need of replacement. And each and every time we replace a bridge, there's $100 million, 120, 130 million. For example, we were redoing the McCluggage Bridge today. And that's around how to $160 million.

So, RBI is just given the department the ability to take care of all these backlog major bridges that we have been trying to accomplish for decades now.

TIM SHELLEY: A big part of this is (to) maintain what's already there. Like you mentioned, a lot of this stuff, especially the interstate system, a lot of this goes back to the '50s and '60s when it was first being built - and that needs some major updates.

OMER OSMAN: Yeah, absolutely. And not only a major update, (but a) major update with new technology was deemed material. We want to make sure that the investment we are we are having today is going to last us for decades.

So if a bridge had been designed to last 50 years and... just being frugal, and this is not just IDOT here. Each and every DOT have learned to be frugal and have learned to extend the life of the asset through various means.

So if we have designed something for 50 years, but you know, we managed to make it last for 60, 70 years. But we want to redesign it in such a way where the new technologies evolve. New materials involve new types of concrete, type of structure, just utilize the ingenuity of other technology that is inherent in our schools, in our research, in our universities, so that the new asset we are creating is going to last us a lot longer than one we started in the '50s and '60s.

TIM SHELLEY: What's (the federal infrastructure bill) mean for Illinois? Potentially, if it passes, in whatever form it ends up passing? What are you hoping to see out of that?

OMER OSMAN: What it actually means is almost a little over $11 billion of extra cash flow. I'd like to say that it was Rebuild Illinois, that was signed by our good governor back in 2019, nd with the cash flow, that we're dealing with right now, Illinois is uniquely, uniquely positioned to take advantage of the federal infrastructure bill.

The $11 billion that has been approved by the Senate, and hopefully, that needs to be approved by the House in the near future, is gonna give us the ability to advance we have a multi-year program, especially on the highway side. It's going to give us the ability to rapidly advance some of those projects is going to give us the ability to add to the list of those projects.

And it's going to it's going to be done in a multi modal way. It's not just going to be for highways and bridges. There's a $1.4 billion component of it that is strictly slated for for bridges. And just like I mentioned not too long ago, about you know, our major rural bridges, we have over 26,000 bridges in the state of Illinois. This is including the local system, and a lot of them are aging, and a lot of them are in need of removal and replacement. And that's what we intend to do with the extra cash flow: advance the repair of what we have and the removal and replacement of of those bridges.

TIM SHELLEY: At the end of the day, infrastructure really is economic development. It can really not only bring a bridge or a railway to a city. It's bringing a whole lot more than that.

OMER OSMAN: Absolutely. And that's how you grow your economy. That's how cities thrive. You know, without infrastructure, there are cities who just went to the side because of lack of infrastructure, or even lack of the upkeep of the infrastructure. That's how you grow the economy, period. That's the first step, I typically say the first step in growing the economy and the first step of investment is infrastructure, you must have that in place.

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