Americans have always loved the lure of the open road and driving is a big part of our cultural make up. Not only does our transportation system spur economic development, it also allow us to travel to new or familiar places and visit loved ones.
The only time we really notice the quality of the road itself is when a problem like buckled concrete, massive potholes or construction detours mar the trip. And the patchwork of governments and agencies responsible for them often causes confusion.
“The average person does not care who owns that road,” said Omer Osman MSCE ’95, acting secretary of the Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT). “All they care about is ‘Am I going to get from here to there safely and are the roads in good condition and fixed in a timely fashion.’”
Osman called our roadways a 1960s system. “It’s not today’s transportation system and definitely not tomorrow’s system,” he said, noting the bulk of IDOT funding (70–80%) goes to road maintenance.
“You don’t want to build an addition to the house when the original is falling down.”
All of this has to be managed amid a global pandemic. State motor fuel tax receipts, a key part of IDOT’s funding, were down in recent months, so the funding uncertainty requires new ways of thinking.
“How can you use the funding and the opportunity (in the six-year, $45 billion Rebuild Illinois capital program). That’s something I’m focusing on.”
Almost $3 billion was slated to be spent in the first year of the bill improving roads, bridges and safety throughout the state. One of the biggest projects is $1.2 billion in improvements planned for Interstate 80, including replacing the bridges over the Des Plaines River.
While living and working for IDOT in Peoria, Osman found Bradley’s construction management degree ideal given his unpredictable work schedule. “My memory of Bradley is there was a flavor to it, and that flavor came in the (graduate) classes … soon enough you develop camaraderie, bonding.”
He was named acting IDOT chief by Gov. J.B. Pritzker in 2019.
While people think of IDOT as mainly roads and bridges, it’s responsible for many systems, including rail and river traffic. Osman wants to close the gap between private-sector development and infrastructure needs and said IDOT needs to lead in adapting and harnessing technology such as driverless vehicles.
In the meantime, there are opportunities for service. During the pandemic shutdown of government offices, workers helped ship protective gear from Springfield to hospitals and facilities statewide. Rest areas were cleaned regularly to aid essential truckers and road projects continued.
“We never shut down a single project because of COVID-19. Nobody went to the unemployment line,” Osman said.
He also wants IDOT to lead the way as a fair and diverse agency.
“I want our own internal staff to resemble the diversity of the state of Illinois. You have to ... bring in the value of being a public servant. There is a self-gratification you get from impacting thousands and millions of people in a positive way.”