Getting the word out on projects and programs has cost the Illinois tollway nearly $1 million over nine months in payments to three outside public relations firms, an amount suburban lawmakers call excessive.
The three firms are subcontractors for engineering consultants on projects ranging from the Central Tri-State Tollway widening between Rosemont and Oak Lawn to a proposed Route 53 extension in Lake County. Two firms have Republican connections.
The "tollway is in the middle of a multibillion dollar capital campaign to reduce traffic in the Chicagoland region," spokesman Dan Rozek said. "This program requires immense coordination and communication to comply with the tollway's high standard for communication and transparency, as well as with federal guidelines requiring communication."
That level of spending on PR is an unnecessary luxury, said state Rep. Jeanne Ives of Wheaton. The tollway has its own communications department with a staff of 11 and a budget of $1.67 million.
"Every nonessential expense paid for by taxpayers in Illinois should be questioned and accounted for given our budget pressures," Ives said.
"There is nothing they need to communicate with the public about that takes outside communications teams at that price level. Nothing."
Unlike construction contracts that are publicly bid, professionals such as engineers are screened, then a committee typically comprised of tollway staff and an outside expert recommends the best candidate to the board.
Rozek said that "engineering firms often subcontract with communications firms to provide outreach and ensure effective, efficient delivery of services to constituents."
The state Senate Transportation Committee will hold a hearing Tuesday to scrutinize potential tollway procurement irregularities.
Democratic state Sen. Laura Murphy of Des Plaines, who prompted the hearing, wondered "why the tollway needs to spend so much money on PR ... it's not like you have a lot of options when you're driving. There's not another tollway that might be competing for your car. They're not a for-profit entity."
So far the three firms have been paid $993,196 between July 2017 and March 2018. The total, however, is likely higher because payments posted on the tollway's website stop at March. The firms have billed 8,470 hours, the equivalent of 1,059 work days.
The largest payment of $723,166 goes to Morreale Communications, a Chicago-based subcontractor with WSP Inc., the tollway's consulting engineer.
That's followed by $146,781 for Naperville-based Images Inc., which is handling communications for CH2M Hill Inc./Knight E/A Inc., consultants to study extending Route 53 north.
Third is Metro Strategies with $123,248. The Glen Ellyn firm subcontracts for AECOM, which is overseeing the Tri-State rebuild, and for traffic consultants CDM Smith.
The tollway board is appointed by Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner. The Daily Herald previously reported that Morreale Communications is owned by Kim Morreale, who is married to Michael McAuliffe, the only Republican state representative in Chicago.
"Over the last 12 years we have partnered with dozens of engineering clients to provide the communications support that is typical and necessary to educate and engage the public with major infrastructure projects," Morreale said.
"My background in journalism and transportation has uniquely positioned my firm to complement the technical nature often associated with these types of projects."
Tollway officials said engineering firms such as WSP assemble their own teams independently.
Metro Strategies was founded by Karyn Romano, a Republican committeewoman and former DuPage County Board member. The firm serves a number of local and state transportation agencies.
Romano said her firm offers a "bridge" to the public and other stakeholders, offering "targeted outreach on large projects."
With the Tri-State project, for example, Metro is "responsible for outreach and coordination with the 20-plus municipalities along the corridor." The firm has worked for the tollway previously under Democratic governors, she said.
Images President Tracy Morse said her firm for more than 17 years "has been a leader in public involvement for the transportation/infrastructure industry in the Midwest and has worked with virtually every transportation agency in Illinois."