A Publication of WTVP

Terry Kohlbuss is director of the Tri-County Regional Planning Commission. His previous experience includes nine years in various positions with the City of Peoria, including the Public Works Department, as a mayoral assistant, and as director of federal employment training programs for a four-county area.

Kohlbuss currently serves on the Transportation Committee for the Peoria Area Chamber of Commerce and the Civic Federation, the Greater Peoria Vision 2020 Economic Development Task Force, and the Red Cross’ Safe Communities Committee. He’s also president of the Illinois Association of Regional Councils and of the Oak Grove District 68 Board of Education.

He and his wife live in Bartonville and have two children.

Tell about your background, schools attended, family, etc.

I grew up in the Bartonville area and went to Oak Grove Grade School and Limestone High School. My dad worked at Cat, and like a lot of others, our family was always greatly affected by how Cat was doing. Even as a kid, I developed an understanding of how hard strikes and layoffs are on families and individuals.

Even though—or maybe because—my dad didn’t get to finish high school, he always stressed the importance of education, and that has shaped my life in a number of ways. From my mother, I learned self-reliance. I couldn’t begin to guess how many times she told me, “Row your own boat.” 

I think it was in a seventh grade government class that I developed an interest in government and a curiosity about how decisions get made and who gets to make them. Getting elected president of my senior class at Limestone turned that curiosity into an interest in political science, my eventual major at Bradley.

I managed to get a year of college credits at ICC before being drafted into the Army in August of 1969. After a tour of duty in Vietnam as an infantry squad leader, I was back at ICC in June 1971.

The G.I. Bill and Illinois State Military Scholarship benefits made it possible for me to enroll at Bradley in 1972. With a new marriage, a part-time job, and a determination to keep taking classes until I finally passed, I graduated in 1976. At some point, I recognized I didn’t have any obvious job prospects with a degree in political science, so I also took classes in education and got my certificate to teach high school. 

I still live in Bartonville with Joyce, my wife of 31 years, our two daughters, and one grandson.

What’s the focus of the Tri-County Regional Planning Commission? When was it begun? What are your responsibilities?

The Tri-County Regional Planning Commission (TCRPC) was created in the 1950s by Woodford, Tazewell, and Peoria counties under a specific authority granted by the Illinois General Assembly. We aren’t a unit of government, but we have to conform to all of the same standards of public accountability. The Commission focuses on issues of regional interest, such as transportation, natural resources land use planning, and intergovernmental cooperation.

My responsibilities include supervising a staff of 12 professionals and six seasonal employees, management of the agency’s basic administrative functions, making policy recommendations to the Commission, and implementing the Commission’s policy decisions. We also staff the Peoria/Pekin Urbanized Area Transportation Study (PPUATS) Committees. PPUATS is the body with responsibility for planning the use of federal transportation funds in the greater Peoria area.

Your career has been in public service. How has your previous experienced helped you in your work with TCRPC? 

If you count time in the Army as public service, I would have to say some of what I learned there has proven to be valuable at every step of my career. The two points that stuck with me are the need to stay focused on completing your mission and the need to communicate with your troops so they understand the mission and can complete it if you aren’t available.

After Bradley, I worked in Galva as a high school teacher. Gary Harrison was the principal, and I learned some very valuable lessons in organizational management from him. He taught me about what should be expected from an employee and from a supervisor in a productive relationship. In the Army, we operated on the assumption that it was a G.I. right to complain, but Gary taught that “complaining down” in an organization is almost always destructive. He also taught me leaders have to have an ego that’s durable enough to seek out and welcome constructive criticism.

In 1978, I took a job as an administrative assistant in the City of Peoria’s Public Works Department. In 1981, I took on additional responsibilities as Mayor Carver’s assistant. What I learned from him about leadership in the public sector and the power of persuasion was better than any master’s degree you can imagine. Carver is gifted with an incredibly agile mind, but his ability to persuade people to follow his lead was the result of much more mental and intellectual preparation than most people know. He’s one of the most effective people I’ve ever known.

Another way in which my career experience helps me in my job is the breadth of experience I’ve had. As a teacher and now as a school board member, I’ve gotten to know a lot about public education. In the Public Works Department, I learned more about sewers and garbage than I ever wanted to know. With Mayor Carver, I was exposed to all levels of government and how they relate to one another. I spent nearly three years as the administrator of employment and training programs and worked with the region’s economic development efforts. I also spent nearly 10 years working with a local environmental engineering company, where I was responsible for sales and marketing. I’ve had the opportunity to look at our community from many different perspectives, and that’s very valuable in understanding how decisions get made and who makes them.

The last thing I’ve learned over the years is the power of relationships. One of the benefits of spending my professional career in one community is the range of people you come to know. I think most citizens would be surprised to know how often opportunities to make things better are missed in the public sector. Few elected officials stay in office long enough to get comfortable with their colleagues, and most administrators have to focus their relationship-building with their own board members and constituents. One of the things I enjoy most about my job is the opportunity to develop and maintain working relationships with so many people. I’d like to think those relationships make it a little easier to promote intergovernmental cooperation and coordination.

How closely does the Commission work with the city?

We’re working with the City of Peoria more all the time. Since the three counties created the Commission and most of the commissioners are Peoria County Board members, historically we haven’t worked as closely with the cities and villages. One notable exception is with transportation planning. The region’s larger municipalities are represented on PPUATS, so we have those relationships to build on.

The two areas we’ve recently expanded our relationship with the City of Peoria is with the Geographic Information System (GIS) and the city’s investigation of the possibility of purchasing the local water system.

Last spring we began offering staff services to the Peoria GIS Consortium. The Consortium includes Peoria County, the Greater Peoria Sanitary District, and the City of Peoria. It was formed to share the costs of developing a GIS, but none of the members had the expertise needed to provide technical support for the project. The Commission has been working on GIS issues for more than a decade, so it was a good fit for us to offer staff services.

In November, the city council approved a contract with the Commission to assist with the water company project. I’ve worked on the project as an unpaid volunteer for several years, so it was natural for the city to use our experience as the project reaches a more active phase.

Tell about the projects the Tri-County Regional Planning Commission has been involved with.

For the past 10 years, the most important project the Commission has tackled is the Peoria to Chicago Freeway. Building major roads is a lengthy, complex, multi-step process, and it requires unbelievable persistence. Big projects like the Peoria to Chicago Freeway always generate opposition, and the opponents only have to stop one phase of the process to stop the whole project. Fortunately, we’re starting to see a stronger, more aggressive consensus in support of the project, and that’s what’s needed to keep moving forward.

Another big project is the restoration and preservation of the Illinois River and Peoria Lakes. The Commission’s involvement began in the mid-1990s when it became the main supporter of a model erosion control ordinance. The Commission agreed with the Heartland Water Resources Council’s concerns that we’re losing the Peoria Lakes to siltation. When the Commission was asked to sponsor an effort to get the area counties, villages, and cities to adopt a model ordinance to control erosion and stormwater runoff, they accepted that responsibility. Nearly all of the local communities now have implemented the recommended programs.

One of the innovative projects at the Commission is traffic counting. Under a contract with the Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT), we program, place, collect, and download traffic counting devices in a nine-county area. The devices look like black patches in the middle of the traffic lane. IDOT uses the data to plan its annual construction and maintenance programs. It’s a great relationship. IDOT saves money and time, and we’ve been successful in keeping our expenses less than what IDOT pays us to do the work. That allows the Commission to fund some other small projects that otherwise wouldn’t get done.

Tell about the importance and history of efforts to secure a Peoria to Chicago Freeway and ring road.

The Commission started working on the Peoria to Chicago Freeway in 1992. The federal highway legislation mandated public involvement in setting transportation priorities, so the Commission and PPUATS sponsored a Transportation Symposium to get input from the community. The consensus was the area’s highest transportation need was an improved connection with the Chicago area. That consensus was reconfirmed at a second symposium in 1998.

Congressman Michel secured $3 million for a study on the feasibility of a new road to Chicago. The finding was there are three feasible cross-country corridors: one generally following Route 116, one generally following Route 24, and one going north from Route 6 to I-180. The feasibility study also identified three corridors for a road from Mossville to Morton that connect the Peoria to Chicago Freeway into the local road network. That’s what we often call the ring road or more technically the “Eastern Bypass.”

The next step began when Congressman LaHood programmed $1 million IDOT used in combination with $1 million of state funding to identify the best of the three Eastern Bypass corridors. IDOT was close to selecting a corridor when the area legislators asked IDOT to suspend work on that part of the project and focus on the cross-country corridors.

The evaluation of the three cross-country corridors continued until spring 2001, when the legislators asked IDOT to concentrate on the northern corridor. They later specified they favored a corridor that generally follows Route 29. IDOT is currently trying to find a way to fit a four-lane, 65-mile-per-hour highway into that corridor.

The Eastern Bypass seems to be making a comeback since last summer, when the legislators began asking for community input on transportation priorities. The process involves a number of meetings with community leaders and is expected to produce an end result in spring 2003. Congressman LaHood has told us he needs this input to determine what projects he should pursue when the next federal transportation bill is written next year. So far there’s been near unanimous support for the Eastern Bypass as our highest priority. I think support for the Eastern Bypass is based on the belief it’s the single most beneficial part of the overall Peoria to Chicago project and will make it easier to someday build a four-lane road in the Route 24 or Route 116 corridor.

The reason this project is so important for the region relates to its economic development benefits. The quality of a region’s transportation infrastructure is second only to the quality of the workforce in determining long-term economic health. You only need to look at a map of the Midwest to understand our region is underserved with respect to major four-lane highways as compared to other communities with which we compete for economic development. Furthermore, you only need to look at the anemic population growth rates, as shown in the 2000 census, to see the effects of that under-service. An improved road to the Chicago area isn’t a cure all, but it’s one of several things we must accomplish if we want the next generation to have the opportunities we’ve enjoyed.

Tell about the local efforts to support Illinois Rivers 2020.

Illinois Rivers 2020 (IR2020) is a $2.5 billion program former Lt. Gov. Corinne Wood and Congressman Ray LaHood promoted to the federal government to restore and preserve the Illinois River. In the Peoria area we’re most interested in how the program can help save the Peoria Lakes from siltation. The average depth of the Lakes outside of the barge channel is now only about 18 inches, and large parts of the upper lake become mud flats when the river level drops. There are a number of local organizations concerned with the condition of the Lakes, and as state and federal funding started to materialize, we recognized the need to coordinate our local efforts. As a result, the Heartland Water Resources Council (HWRC), the Tri-County Riverfront Action Forum (TCRAF), the local office of The Nature Conservancy (TNC), and the TCRPC formed the Peoria Lakes Basin Alliance. HWRC takes the lead on any issues involved with the River itself, such as dredging and building islands with the dredged material. TCRAF has a long history of bringing riverfront land into public ownership. TNC offers world-class expertise in creating and maintaining environmentally healthy river systems. TCRPC has the lead in planning and implementing projects that will manage and slow erosion rates and the subsequent delivery of silt to the river.

The Alliance has developed a long-range vision for the future of the Peoria Lakes that we think is very practical, but it will require the level of state and federal funding IR2020 seeks. Unfortunately, even with large amounts of money, we don’t think it’s likely we’ll ever see the Lakes as they were in the 1940s, with thousands of acres of deep water. We can, however, get back to the conditions as they were before the reversal of the Chicago River dramatically increased the flow in the River and the locks and dams turned the River into a series of deep-water pools.

The Alliance is working well, and I’m very optimistic that with the continued help from our congressman and from friends in state government, we can restore and preserve the Peoria Lakes for future generations.

Tell how the TCRPC assists with the development of the region’s riverfront.

About a year ago, several communities asked the Commission to prepare a plan for how development along the riverfront could and should be coordinated. The Commission sought and was granted $36,000 from the Illinois Department of Commerce and Community Affairs to fund most of the $50,000 project. The scope of the project includes looking at the various reasons people visit the region and what we can do to attract more tourists—and at the same time, improve the quality of life for people who live here now. The expectation is we can diversify our economy and improve our visibility and attractiveness to the kind of young professionals a community needs to grow and prosper. I was surprised how many people visit the area for things like sports tournaments, conventions, and, believe it or not, eco-tourism. The Convention and Visitors Bureau has done a superb job of marketing the area, and our hope is the plan will identify what other developments we should try to add to do even better. The first draft of the plan should be ready in two or three months, and I look forward to seeing how the communities react to a coordinated approach to their riverfront development.

You’ve been a volunteer consultant to the City of Peoria in its efforts to evaluate the possibility of exercising its option to purchase Illinois American Water Company’s Peoria District. What would be the benefits of doing so? What’s the current status of the project?

My involvement with the water company issue began when I was with the environmental consulting firm. The firm was contracted by the City of Peoria to do a study on the legal and financial feasibility of bringing the water system into public ownership. My first reaction was the idea was a little bizarre because it was going in the opposite direction from the privatization trend in government. When the study was completed, three facts changed my attitude.

The first was the attorneys we teamed with on the project told us the city’s 1889 franchise agreement with the water company contained a still-valid option to repurchase the system. That meant the city’s acquisition of the system wasn’t at all like a forced government takeover, but the simple exercise of an option the water company agreed to years ago.

The second fact was the enormous difference in the cost of operating an investor-owned utility as compared to one that’s owned by the public. The differences largely stem from the state and federal tax burdens that have to be borne by an investor-owned utility and ultimately by the system’s customers through the rates they pay. I’ve seen several rate surveys showing customers of investor-owned water utilities pay about 40 percent more than customers of publicly-owned systems. In Illinois American’s Peoria District, that amounts to millions of dollars per year.

The third fact is the realization that the water company isn’t like other private sector companies; it’s a monopoly. If its customers think rates are too high or its service isn’t good enough, what can they do about it? They can’t take their business elsewhere. Illinois American will argue the Illinois Commerce Commission exists to protect the interests of the consumers, but if that’s so, why are our rates twice the national average? U.S. News and World Report recently published a summary that showed Peoria having some of the highest rates in the nation, and that was before Illinois American recently requested a 22 percent increase in rates.

Does all of that mean the city should exercise its option to buy the system? It’s still too early to make that decision because we don’t yet know the purchase price. We also don’t know much about the physical condition of the system, the cost of operating the system, or a number of other costs associated with owning the system. I do, however, believe it makes sense for the city to continue to gather the information needed to make an intelligent decision about purchasing.

With respect to the status of the project, in December, the Illinois Supreme Court declined to hear Illinois American’s appeal of the Circuit and Appellate rulings that the repurchase option is valid and binding. Illinois American and the city now have to work out the details on how to proceed with setting a purchase price. It may be possible to negotiate a price that’s agreeable with both sides. If not, the franchise agreement calls for the city and Illinois American each to appoint a disinterested, non-resident appraiser. Those two appraisers then appoint a third appraiser, and the three of them serve as an appraisal panel to set the purchase price.

While that’s going on, the city must also get ready to take ownership, including the selection of a contract operator for the system. One of the ironic aspects of public ownership is the opportunity to introduce some free market competition. Under IAWC ownership, there’s no opportunity to get competitive bids for the operation and maintenance of the system, but under public ownership, the city will seek proposals from the best contract operators in the country. It will be interesting to see what effect that competition will have on the cost of operating the system and on the rates customers pay.

What misperceptions does the public have regarding transportation issues?

There are two. The first is that few people realize how important public support is in the construction of a major new road or any big project. When millions of dollars are involved, policy makers want public support that’s nearly unanimous. Opponents to large public investments almost always make more noise and get more attention than advocates. The way for project supporters to counteract opposition is to make sure their voices are heard with equal repetition and passion. If the “silent majority” stays silent, state and federal funding will go to some other community perceived as more unified about what it wants and needs.

The other is how long it takes to get to the actual construction of a major project. Some people can’t understand why concrete can’t be poured next week. I don’t lament all the time that’s needed for planning and things like environmental reviews, but those process requirements make it hard to sustain community support over a decade or more. That’s one reason so many projects fail and opportunities get missed.

How is the Planning Commission helping to shape the Peoria area of tomorrow?

The Planning Commission helps shape the future with every large and small project we do. In addition, the Commission offers leadership on some projects and support on others. Over the past 24 years, I’ve seen many community leaders willing to support regional projects, but few who can offer leadership and initiative for the future of the region. The most important contribution the Commission makes is in promoting that sense of leadership, initiative, and common purpose. IBI