Editorial: No, for now, to tax-funded bridge in Wheeling

Tax increment financing can prime the pump for development in the suburbs, or it can be overused to the detriment of taxpayers.

The idea behind TIFs is that new property taxes generated from a development go into a special fund, rather than going to local schools, towns and other governments. The fund can pay costs associated with the development, from surveys to roads to land purchases.

But should you use TIF money to build a bridge and access road to vacant property when there's no development plan in sight?

That's the question in Wheeling, where local developers Mark and Vivian Smith want TIF money to pay for a bridge over a floodwater channel to 17 acres of undeveloped land near Lake-Cook Road and Milwaukee Avenue. Now, the road ends in a bristle of red warning reflectors and "no dumping" signs.

We sympathize with Mark Smith, who says the dead end has deterred potential developers.

But when it comes to paying for a bridge, we're with Village President Pat Horcher, who objects to using TIF money for what he called "a bridge to nowhere." Village board members at a meeting last week split on the issue in an informal poll.

We urge the village board to hold off on committing TIF funds, for now. TIFs work when the promise of raising the tax base justifies the use of the public funds. The lack of a concrete plan for the site upends that balance.

There's also a chance a bridge built now would be wasted money and effort. An industrial development generates different traffic and has different road and bridge requirements than an office park or a housing complex would.

We wouldn't necessarily object to using TIF funds to build a bridge as an integral part of a development plan. But now, it comes across as sort of a tax-financed marketing point meant to drum up interest in the property.

The Smiths, already the recipients of $10.5 million in TIF funding for the nearby Prairie Park condominiums, say the bridge was promised as part of a 1979 annexation agreement between the village and the former landowner and that now's the time to move forward because the TIF that could pay for the bridge expires in a few years.

But the agreement requiring the bridge expired in the 1990s. And the TIF district has been in place since 2003, allowing plenty of time to get a development off the ground both before and since the recession.

A solid plan gives a reason to move forward. Lacking that, the answer should be "no."

Should Wheeling build bridge to vacant land?

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