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As construction of the interstate highway system approached the half-way mark in the late 1960s, more than 4 million registered vehicles raced across the state. The boom in vehicle use was caused by an equally impressive boom in Illinois’ population growth. During the post-war Baby Boom years between 1950 and 1960, Illinois’ population increased more than it had in the 25 years prior to 1950. In 1960, Illinois became only the fourth state to reach a population of 10 million (after New York, California, and Pennsylvania).

This growth and the rapidly changing face of transportation placed a great strain on the state’s budget. Between 1950 and 1960, yearly maintenance expenditures for state roads and highways more than doubled from $59.6 million to $128.1 million. Maintenance costs for the Chicago area alone more than quadrupled, going from $589,000 per year in 1956 to $2.8 million by 1962. In 1963, the Illinois 73rd General Assembly established the Illinois Highway Study Commission (IHSC) to “investigate, study, and formulate a highway plan for the state.” IHSC embarked on a 4-year endeavor, conducting testimonies, public meetings, and interviews with government officials, industry leaders, and the general public. In a series of reports between 1966 and 1967, IHSC detailed the anticipated revenues and expenditures, highway classification systems, and traffic models needed for a complete state highway modernization plan. Their reports recognized the need for the creation of a more comprehensive transportation department, and recommended a second IHSC to investigate the matter further.

A second IHSC was created and presented its report to the Illinois 76th General Assembly in February, 1969. IHSC affirmed the need for a dedicated transportation department, citing the recent creation of the U.S. Department of Transportation and similar agencies in other states, and detailing the redundant or overlapping functions of several state agencies. IHSC issued its "full support in principle to the establishment of a State Department of Transportation to take over the transportation functions of: (1) Division of Highways; (2) Illinois Toll Road Authority; (3) Department of Aeronautics; (4) Bridge and Ferry Operations of the Division of Waterways; (5) Motor Vehicle Administration of the Office of the Secretary of State; and, (6) highway-related functions of the Department of Public Safety.”

A third IHSC in early 1971 analyzed the creation and organization of existing state departments of transportation (DOT). Among these, Connecticut and New York’s DOTs were used as “outstanding examples” of fully coordinated agencies with flexible transportation funds. IHSC warned against the failure to create a cohesive and powerful agency and emphasized the importance of funding other transportation developments besides highways. “If [Illinois’] DOT is going to do no more than provide a forum for interagency cooperation,” their report cautioned, “the expense of re-organization might as well be avoided.”

In a special message on transportation delivered to the Illinois General Assembly on February 17, 1971, Governor Richard B. Ogilvie made clear that transportation was the top issue for the state. As the transportation center of the nation, Governor Ogilvie said, Illinois’ “transportation capabilities are the foundation of our prosperity. Opportunities for jobs and business exist in direct relationship to our ability to get people to and from their place of work, to bring new materials to industry, and to deliver finished products to consumers.” Calling the transportation issue “the most important challenge of 1971,” Governor Ogilvie asked the Illinois General Assembly to immediately consider the creation of a state transportation department.

In response, the legislature assembled a task force – including members of the Governor’s staff, the Department of Public Works and Buildings, and the Bureau of the Budget – to make recommendations for the legislation needed to establish a transportation department. The task force submitted its recommendations in spring 1971. In addition to proposing the creation of the Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT), the task force outlined a plan to secure a sound financial base for the new agency. This general plan would form the basis for the Transportation Bond Act of 1971. The Act, approved on July 2, 1971, authorized the state to issue, sell and provide for the retirement of $900 million in state bonds “for the specific purpose of promoting and assuring rapid, efficient, and safe highway, air and mass transportation for the inhabitants of the state.” The bond issue, the largest in the state’s history at the time, was the first enacted under the new and less restrictive financial provisions of the 1970 Illinois Constitution. It was amended less than 18 months later to issue an additional $275 million in bonds, bringing the initial transportation bond program to nearly $1.2 billion. 

With funding secured, the Illinois 77th General Assembly passed Public Act 77-153, a series of 33 bills that featured the creation of IDOT. With this, Illinois became the 14th state to establish a transportation department. On January 1, 1972, the new department assumed the transportation responsibilities of the Department of Public Works and Buildings, the Office of Mass Transportation from the Department of Local Government Affairs, and the safety inspection functions previously spread across the State Police, Secretary of State, Illinois Commerce Commission, and the Superintendent of Public Instruction. The Division of Waterways, which along with the Division of Highways had been a transportation division since 1917, was temporarily renamed the Office of Water Resource Management before becoming the Division of Water Resources in 1973. William Cellini, the serving director of the Department of Public Works and Buildings, was appointed as the first IDOT Secretary. The final makeup of the new department did not include Tollways or Secretary of State motor vehicle services or, initially, the Department of Aeronautics, but otherwise followed the general task force recommendations.

While the mission and responsibilities of the new department were set by legislation, the question of organization was left open. On September 27, 1971, Governor Ogilvie appointed the Commission on Organization of the Department of Transportation and charged it with the task of recommending “how the Department may be organized for most efficient management.” The 12-man Commission, chaired by John E. Robson – future Undersecretary of the U.S. Department of Transportation and Deputy Secretary of the U.S. Treasury Department – issued its report January 1972.

The commission’s report outlined 10 core objectives for the new department:

  1. To plan and develop transportation systems which satisfy the overall needs of the state.
  2. To ensure that transportation planning and development fulfills goals and priorities for social economic development, and urban and regional development and restoration.
  3. To develop efficient transportation systems based on economic analysis and through the regulatory process, legislative liaison and interaction with the private sector.
  4. To stress the importance of transportation safety.
  5. To ensure that transportations systems are compatible with the environment.
  6. To maximize financial participation and investment of public and private funds for transportation programs and systems.
  7. To act as a focal point for governmental agencies’ transportation needs.
  8. To keep Illinois in the forefront of transportation technology and techniques.
  9. To develop and encourage communication between the department and its publics.
  10. To attract, develop, and retain a knowledgeable and competent staff.

The commission’s report laid the structural and organizational foundation for the department, and provided the department “with the opportunity for leadership, a sound basis for its development, and the capability to fulfill the challenge of transportation in the years ahead.”