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updated: 12/12/2011 4:49 AM

IDOT exec says drivers may need to be taxed

Illinois transportation secretary says it may be needed for road projects

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  • IDOT Secretary Ann Schneider

      IDOT Secretary Ann Schneider

  • With limited cash, IDOT is focusing on repairing its existing roads and highways as well as investigating alternative revenue streams, such as controversial proposal to tax motorists by the number of miles they drive.

      With limited cash, IDOT is focusing on repairing its existing roads and highways as well as investigating alternative revenue streams, such as controversial proposal to tax motorists by the number of miles they drive.
    Daily Herald file photo

 
 

For the first time in its history, Illinois has two women holding the most powerful transportation jobs in the state.

Kristi Lafleur is Illinois tollway CEO and Ann Schneider took the reins as transportation secretary in October.

On the plus side, it's nice to be commander in chief of an army of snowplow drivers come January. On the negative side, it's a daunting time for the Illinois Department of Transportation with limited cash and dwindling revenues.

The funding gap means the state needs to start thinking creatively about paying for its roads -- possibly with a controversial tax based on how many miles you travel, Schneider told me last week.

IDOT's new secretary also talked about the South suburban airport and the need for Illinoisans to get over the downstate vs. Chicago-region feud.

Running an agency with 5,200 employees and overseeing $2.5 billion in capital projects is "a tremendous opportunity and a tremendous responsibility," said Schneider, 51.

At IDOT, she previously served as chief operating officer and chief fiscal officer.

That means she has no illusions about the department's financial picture.

"It's really important to look at how we are funded, not just for highways but all transportation modes," Schneider said. "We are in an interesting situation with our revenue stream not really supporting the maintenance needs of the state.

"The capital bill (a 2009 $31 billion construction plan) has helped address this but we're getting close to the end of that (revenue stream). One challenge will be finding a reliable funding mechanism."

Illinois levies a flat 19-cent per gallon motor fuel tax to help pay for highways. But with the lackluster economy and more fuel-efficient vehicles, gas consumption is down and so are revenues.

It's a situation also facing the federal highway trust fund, which is continually broke. One alternative is taxing drivers on the miles they travel. Various states are exploring this option, including Oregon, but the vehicle-miles-traveled or VMT tax is a political third rail. Unresolved questions include how to collect the tax and if that would mean government monitoring of travel, possibly through a GPS-type system.

Still, it's an option that should be part of the discussion, Schneider said.

"I would like to think about what all the alternatives are and what seems to make sense," she said.

Highways aren't the only mode of transportation with budget gaps. Passenger rail also is underfunded, Schneider said, adding one solution might be a ticket surcharge.

Across Illinois, there's disagreement over how much transportation money goes to Chicago and the suburbs compared to downstate, with each side claiming to be shortchanged.

"Instead of deciding how to divide a shrinking pie, we need to discuss how to make the pie bigger," Schneider said.

"I know there's tension with the Chicago area and downstate, but downstate transportation needs have to be considered as well as what's going on in Northeastern Illinois. In Northeastern Illinois, the transportation system creates economic opportunities; we have to deliver those statewide."

Given the limits of the state to pay for any megaprojects, the Illinois tollway is playing a bigger role in infrastructure. For example, the tollway will fund the extension of the Elgin-O'Hare Expressway east to the airport through a Jan. 1 rate increase.

However, "another way for IDOT to do larger projects is through public, private partnerships," Schneider said. One such partnership could be the Illiana Expressway, a proposed highway connecting I-55 south of Joliet to I-65 in northwestern Indiana.

With growth in Will County and new intermodal facilities, serving rail and truck commerce, truck traffic will only increase on I-80, Schneider said, and "I-80 won't be able to sustain that traffic level" without the Illiana.

She also backs the south suburban airport proposed near Peotone. The state has spent millions acquiring land for the airport, but there's local opposition, not to mention fights between Will County and municipalities over who should operate it.

Air-traffic projections show there will be enough business in the future to support a Peotone airport as well as O'Hare, Midway and Gary airports, Schneider said.

Schneider has a master's degree in public administration from the University of Illinois at Springfield and is working on a doctorate in the same field. She's worked for the state for nearly 25 years as a budget administrator with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, Board of Higher Education and in the governor's office.

As a female transportation executive, Schneider recognizes she's a rarity and hopes to provide an example to encourage more women to take leadership roles in a male-dominated field. She recently bonded over dinner with seven female colleagues at an American Association of State Transportation and Highway Officials conference this fall.

The gender gap is still there, but "we can make a difference," Schneider said, adding she'd run into some glass ceilings early in her career but also worked for "some tremendous people that didn't care if I was a woman."

I had to know what type of car the IDOT secretary drives -- a Lincoln MKV hybrid -- and then I gave Schneider the last word.

"We need to start thinking about what our transportation system will look like in the future and beyond," she said.

"We're operating a system that was conceived and built in the mid-20th century. We need to think what it will look like in the mid-21st century. We have to be intermodal."

Got thoughts on IDOT's future? Drop me an email at mpyke@dailyherald.com

Your voice

Railfan Stephen Schmidt generated a spurt of helpful emails when he wrote about the hazards of watching trains in a post-9/11 era and asked for advice on how to avoid being questioned by police about possible suspicious activity.

Dennis Mogan of South Barrington writes, "The most sensible way to accommodate the thousands of railfans who gravitate to the nation's rail network is to take the Rochelle, Illinois, approach: ACCOMMODATE THEM IN A SAFE MANNER. Rochelle constructed an observation platform from which railfans and others can safely view and photograph trains traversing the interlocking between the Union Pacific and the BNSF Railroads. This is likely the busiest freight interlocking in the country where well over a hundred trains pass through the interlocking daily."

And reader John Ohlson of Schaumburg added that Stephen "should consider the possibility of making the railroad, airport or local and state police aware that he is going to be pursuing his hobby at a given location and time.

"Second, as a society, we should work to minimize the effects of the paranoia mentioned above. One way might be for Homeland Security to issue photo identification cards to hobbyists (railfans, etc.) as a means of dissuading overzealous law enforcement."

Gridlock alert

Couple things to watch for through Wednesday:

• Tri-State Tollway drivers should beware of daytime bridge work at Archer Avenue.

• I-355 road warriors heading south can expect pavement widening at the southbound Route 6 exit ramp.

Upcoming

Metra Union Pacific North and UP West riders can sound off through Friday on proposed schedule changes at metrarail.com or call (312) 322-6777, Ext. 7, from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays.

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