Bill Knight – May 29
11:22 am
Wed May 28, 2014

Time Running Out for Roads and Bridges in Illinois

The Illinois legislature’s spring session is supposed to end this week, roads and bridges are deteriorating, and state and federal programs to fund construction are expiring, so an unusual coalition of business and labor proposed a plan to address the situation.

An Illinois road in need of repairs
An Illinois road in need of repairs
Credit Rich Egger

However, it’s unclear where it stands in Springfield.

Wrapping up are Illinois Jobs Now – which funds maintenance and construction of roads, highways and public transit, set to end July 1 – and the federal Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century (MAP-21), ending Sept. 30 (if its funds don’t run out sooner).

That trust fund usually operates from the 18.4 cents/gallon federal gas tax. But the tax hasn’t increased since 1993, and rising costs have outpaced revenues by as much as $20 billion annually in recent years.

The need also is becoming dangerous. The American Society of Civil Engineers gives the nation’s infrastructure a D+ grade in its annual report card. Statewide, 2,275 bridges are structurally deficient, according to the American Road & Transportation Builders Association, and that will only worsen without attention, advocates say.

Jennifer Morrison from the Transportation For Illinois Coalition (TFIC) said, “If we don’t do anything, that would mean one in every three miles would be in unacceptable condition.”

TFIC proposed funding Illinois’ transportation infrastructure by directing sales taxes on fuel paid at the pump back to transportation spending, increasing vehicle registration fees, and broadening the sales tax so that transportation-related services like auto repairs and car washes would be spent only on transportation.

TFIC also proposes increasing the fuel tax by 4 cents/gallon for gasoline and 7 cents/gallon on diesel – taxes that haven't increased for road purposes since 1990. Altogether, that would help create a state fund of $1.8 billion annually to provide steady spending for transportation.

TFIC’s report “Catalyst to a Better Economy,” says, “The $1.8 billion in new annual revenue would fund pay-as-you-go spending and bonding to ensure the state gets its roads into 90 percent satisfactory shape and its bridges to 93 percent satisfactory shape. This proposal would mean Illinoisans would see immediate improvement in the quality of roads, bridges and transit, and the State would be positioned to maintain the system going forward.”

Bill Knight
Bill Knight

Fuel prices in the last decade have ranged from $1.50/gallon to more than $4/gallon. Such fluctuations, plus better mileage and motorists driving less, have affected funds. The biggest factor is inflation. If the fuel tax had kept up with inflation, it would be 32 cents/gallon today.

Illinois Chamber of Commerce president Doug Whitley, a TFIC co-chair, stressed earmarking transportation taxes for transportation spending, saying “The centerpiece to fund TFIC’s proposal requires the reallocation of existing tax and fee receipts that are derived from highway users, but currently deposited in the state’s General Fund rather than in a road or construction fund. You have to invest in your future. Being able to make sure you can get workers to and from your locations, get your goods and services moved, is invaluable.”

However, some businesses say commerce would be hurt, and earmarking transportation-related revenues for transportation spending affects programs that benefit from diverting about $1 billion, which the state’s General Fund wouldn’t have to spend.

Gov. Pat Quinn’s six-year, $8.6 billion plan for addressing infrastructure seems ambitious, but it’s vague on funding. Meanwhile, the prospect for the coalition’s idea is anybody’s guess, but since none of the dozens of Illinois legislators TFIC says it contacted has agreed to sponsor it, it doesn’t look good. Usually, tax bills don’t occur until the end of the legislative session, so something could still happen in the next day or so. But it’s also six months before an election and lawmakers already are sweating Quinn’s request to make permanent the five-year-old temporary income tax increase, which is set to expire next year.

Quinn barely mentioned transportation issues in his budget message in March, and Republican gubernatorial candidate Bruce Rauner has said he wants the state to spend more on infrastructure improvement, but he said he didn't think Illinois' motor fuel tax would need to be increased.

Whitley’s criticism is bi-partisan; he said, “Legislators are willing to cut the ribbons, but not as willing to vote for the fee increases needed to fund the programs.”  

Contact Bill at Bill.Knight@hotmail.com; his twice-weekly columns are archived at billknightcolumn.blogspot.com

The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of Tri States Public Radio or Western Illinois University