Amid objections about overspending, Illinois tollway directors increased their consulting engineer's contract by nearly $6 million Thursday to design a new customer service center among other duties.
In total, the board added $26.9 million to six existing contracts at a Thursday meeting and that troubled one director.
"There's a lot of things that can be done with $26 million," Director Joseph Gomez of Northfield said. "You could build a school. You could help people with mental health (problems). We seem to be throwing money around."
Chairman Robert Schillerstrom told Gomez he was "out of order because we don't build schools and we don't help people with mental health and you know that. So stay focused on this particular item."
Gomez shot back, "I will stay focused on the items I think are important to the taxpayers and the toll road."
"I will also point out that we don't tax anybody," Schillerstrom retorted. The tollway is mostly funded by tolls, fines and fees.
As a result of the $5.7 million increase, consulting engineer WSP USA Inc. will receive $90.2 million over 4½ years.
The firm will help develop an "I-PASS Business Center" likely to be located at a parking lot on the northeast tollway campus.
The existing customer service area in the ground floor of the headquarters will be converted to a new board room.
Currently, people wishing to attend public meetings must obtain passes and be escorted upstairs to board meetings.
"Some people feel, rightfully so, this can have a chilling effect on their ability to attend our meetings," Schillerstrom said.
WSP's new duties also include updating the bridge load rating system, testing new designs for sound walls and analyzing construction plans to find cost-efficiencies.
"These changes to these contracts are all well-thought out and some will allow us to save substantial money," Schillerstrom said.
Gomez called the proposed building "a ridiculous waste of taxpayer's money."
When first built, the tollway offices were called a "Taj Mahal," but the customer service area gets overcrowded and there's not enough space for consultants, officials said.
WSP and most of the firm's subcontractors work in a leased annex building in Lisle near tollway headquarters. The consultants are reimbursed by the tollway for rent at the leased space.
The tollway also provides computers and accessories for those consultants "to ensure data and network security," spokesman Dan Rozek said. Computers and rent are included as part of the tollway consultants' contracts.
Of 21 firms in the annex, 20 are engineering, construction or IT companies and one is a public relations consultant -- Chicago-based Morreale Communications.
Gomez said tollway spending on PR, which includes three external firms and an in-house communications department, is excessive given "this is a state that's broke."
Schillerstrom said the tollway has internal and external auditors watching its finances. "We believe we are being very, very prudent in our use of our money," he said.
Also Thursday, nearly $14 million was added to a contract with CH2M Hill Inc., to modify designs for a western bypass (I-490) around O'Hare International Airport. One reason for the changes involves resolving a dispute with the Canadian Pacific Railway over land the tollway needs for the road near Bensenville.