Greuling: Keys to Will County economy are infrastructure, housing

Unless you have been living under a rock the last couple of months, the condition of transportation infrastructure in Will County has created quite a commotion.

While the epicenter of this current “crisis” has been the condition of the Interstate 80 bridges over the Des Plaines River in Joliet, it is well documented that other segments of our transportation network are suffering from delayed maintenance, and lack of new investment creating dangerous travel conditions.

The stretch of Illinois 53 from the interchange at I-80 south to Laraway Road, a primary route to the intermodal centers, has unsafe truck access on and off the interstate, narrow and failing pavement south on Illinois 53 and poor signalization. Likewise, the Briggs Street bridge over I-80 has been weight limited for freight trucks due to structural deficiencies to the bridge structure.

While a number of highway projects currently underway will make travel safer and less congested, such as new interchanges at Weber Road and Interstate 55 and Route 30 and I-80, longterm projects such as the reconstruction of I-80 from Minooka to New Lenox and I-55 from I-80 to Wilmington currently have no funding.

For a county that provides major truck and auto access to the region and nation, the lack of new investment will have far reaching economic impacts. The Will County Freight Plan has shown 3.5 percent of the U.S. GDP passes through Will County every year.

The solution? Support permanent increased funding by the federal, state and local governments dedicated to transportation infrastructure, as well as using new mechanisms to fund major projects such as public-private partnerships and capturing user fees through tolling and congestion pricing.

A funded and functional transportation network will continue to drive economic development. However, there is another missing ingredient for the secret sauce of Will County growth – housing.

In the 2000s, Will County was a boom town for new residential housing units. A recent study by the Will County Center for Economic Development showed that from 1999 to 2008 there were 65,535 dwelling units built in the county.

Then the Great Recession hit. Between 2009 and 2018, only 10,883 were constructed. That’s a decline of 84 percent. During that same period, Will County jobs have increased by 32 percent!

Like transportation infrastructure, building new rooftops is critical to any local economy – especially one that is adding 6,000-plus new jobs a year. New housing expands the locally available labor supply, increases commercial and retail development, diversifies and improves the tax base and provides confidence to expanding and new companies that Will County has the quality of life they want for their employees.

Housing needs and demands are changing. While traditional single-family homes still are the mainstay for suburban communities, the younger demographic want more flexibility. They prefer to rent than own, want smaller dwelling units and proximity to lifestyle amenities they enjoy. They also represent the largest percentage of our upwardly mobile workforce.

What Will County has not been doing is building multi-family housing. As a percentage of all housing units built in the county since 2014, multi-family units represent only 16%. That’s compared to Illinois statewide (53%), Cook County (82%), Lake County (34%), Kane County (33%) and DuPage County (31%). Many of the workers of today and tomorrow cannot find housing in Will County.

Investing in housing is the same as investing in transportation infrastructure. Local economies cannot thrive without both. The good news is Will County’s economy offers tremendous opportunities in both public and private sector investment. The potential for more significant growth is here.

• John Greuling is president and CEO of the Will County Center for Economic Development.