AP NEWS

Mixed signals from state

May 4, 2019

BRADLEY — On April 8, the state Department of Transportation was contradicting itself.

At issue was CSL Behring’s request for a traffic light that would reduce Route 50 traffic jams, which the Daily Journal asked about.

At 2:11 p.m. April 8, a department spokeswoman responded. She said she contacted the department’s office in Ottawa about it.

“They haven’t received a permit request for traffic signals along Illinois 50 into CSL Behring in Kankakee,” spokeswoman Jessie Decker wrote.

Just eight minutes before, a representative of Sen. Toi Hutchinson, D-Olympia Fields, who represents Kankakee County, sent an email to Transportation Secretary Omer Osman labeled, “Please HELP!” In the email was a copy of a Daily Journal story from the week before about CSL’s frustrations in getting state approval for the traffic light, which the company promised to pay for.

Minutes later, the secretary’s office reached out to an engineer in the Ottawa office, according to emails the Daily Journal obtained through an open records request. In the copy provided to the newspaper, all of the email’s text was blacked out.

Throughout the next few hours, emails about the light were shot back and forth among officials, including Osman, Decker and another spokesman. Nearly all their messages were redacted, with the department citing a legal exception allowing secrecy for “preliminary” drafts and notes.

Shortly before 2 p.m., Rich Miller from Capitol Fax, a closely watched blog in Springfield, posted an item with an excerpt from the Daily Journal’s story about CSL Behring’s frustrations in getting the traffic light approved.

“I’d have to ban myself from my own blog if I wrote what I really think about this level of ineptitude,” Miller wrote.

About 3:30 p.m., Hutchinson posted an item on Facebook saying the Department of Transportation had assured her that the traffic light would be approved and the agency was working to speed up its process.

That would be the very traffic light request that the department’s public relations office had just told the Daily Journal did not exist.

‘A MISUNDERSTANDING’

In light of the department’s apparent contradiction, the Daily Journal emailed Decker and Guy Tridgell, director of communications, to settle the issue, but the department never responded to the message.

In an interview this week, Tridgell said the Daily Journal’s use of the term “permit request” might not have been the proper “frame of reference.”

“If there was a misunderstanding, I certainly apologize for that,” he said.

In a later email, he said CSL’s request was a common one for the department.

“For the new entrance, the developer is seeking to connect to the signal and build at least one new turn lane on Illinois 50,” he said in the email. “We’re more than happy to accommodate, but there are some steps that need to be taken, in particular, to make sure that there is enough right of way for the improvements before construction can start and that the future maintenance responsibilities of the signals are sorted out in advance between IDOT and the local agencies.”

Last June, Tridgell said, an engineering consultant representing CSL presented the department with a study for the new entrance.

“Within a month, we agreed that the signal was warranted and asked the consultant to submit a more detailed proposal of the plans. They submitted those plans on March 26 of this year. All of this is a fairly typical exchange of information to make sure that the improvements at the intersection are consistent with what the developer is planning to do,” Tridgell said.

Two days after Hutchinson’s Facebook post, Rep. Lindsay Parkhurst, R-Kankakee, announced Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker would visit CSL Behring in a couple weeks.

Secretary Osman joined the governor. At a news conference, a Daily Journal reporter asked why the department had stated a permit request did not exist. Osman did not explain why, but said there were several steps to the request process.

‘NONCONTROVERSIAL’

At a public meeting in early April, a CSL Behring official publicly expressed frustration about the traffic light project, which prompted the newspaper story.

The Australian pharmaceutical company is in the early phases of a 1.8 million-square-foot expansion, which will easily require an investment far north of $1 billion.

The company is not seeking any financial assistance or tax breaks from any governmental body. CSL said it had one request — permission to put up a traffic light opposite Lowe’s hardware store, making the existing three-way light a four-way.

“This is community supported. It is noncontroversial. How does this take so long?” Chris Abell, CSL site project manager, said at the meeting.

The department’s emails show that it had been communicating for at least a year with CSL’s engineers on the traffic light request. In fact, a meeting was held about it and other improvements last August, with local and state leaders, including Rep. Parkhurst, invited to attend. An email that same month showed the company gave extensive information to the state in connection with the traffic light request.

When the governor visited, officials vowed to speed up CSL’s request. The light is expected to be ready by July.

CSL is the county’s second largest employer. Its expansion is seen as the largest one in the state. It could mean a doubling of the CSL’s local workforce of 1,600.