Griffin: Why gas tax distribution varies in suburbs

Smaller towns get less when fuel revenue is doled out

  • Wheeling got $14,096 per mile of streets in motor fuel taxes disbursed by the state last year.

    Wheeling got $14,096 per mile of streets in motor fuel taxes disbursed by the state last year. George LeClaire | Staff Photographer

  • North Barrington received $3,647 per mile of streets in funding for road repairs from state motor fuel taxes last year. The funds are distributed by population rather than mileage of roads maintained.

    North Barrington received $3,647 per mile of streets in funding for road repairs from state motor fuel taxes last year. The funds are distributed by population rather than mileage of roads maintained. Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

  • Money for miles

    Graphic: Money for miles (click image to open)

  • Gas tax share

    Graphic: Gas tax share (click image to open)

 
 
Updated 10/1/2014 5:01 AM

When Wheeling has to fix its roads, the village can count on $14,096 per mile in motor fuel taxes disbursed by the state.

North Barrington, however, gets just $3,647 a mile. The towns are the two extremes among 73 suburbs analyzed by the Daily Herald using municipal audits and Illinois Department of Transportation records.

 

Funding swings widely among different towns because motor fuel tax revenue -- which comes from taxes drivers pay at the pump -- is distributed to towns by population, rather than taking into account road mileage.

Some towns, as well as a regional planning agency, criticize the formula, one of three different ways motor fuel taxes are distributed.

The Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning produced a series of reports on motor fuel tax disbursements in the past year. The reports point out inequities created by the current formulas, which use different calculation methods depending on the type of government agency getting the money. While municipalities receive funding based on population, townships get motor fuel tax funding based on miles of roads they're responsible for maintaining. All counties except Cook County receive funds based on the volume of motor vehicle license fees collected. Cook County simply gets a set percentage of the state's motor fuel taxes, which translated to $61,900 per mile last year, according to the report.

"We suggest looking at other items like use, safety and road conditions as a way of allocating funding beyond rote formulas," said Elizabeth Schuh, a principal policy analyst at CMAP.

Officials from suburbs that get less funding per mile say it's unfair and contend it's getting harder to fund road projects.

"It would be much fairer if it were based on road miles," said Long Grove Village Manager Dave Lothspeich. "We don't levy a property tax, so we've got all the same expenses, but no extra revenue."

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Long Grove received $227,757 in 2013 from the motor fuel tax fund, which translates to $3,927 per mile for its 58 miles of streets.

Conversely, officials in towns that receive higher levels of funding argue that the population-based formula is fair because it returns money to the people who pay the tax.

"That's the way many taxes are distributed," said Wheeling Village Manager Jon Sfondilis. "You have more benefit going to those communities with more people."

Most municipally maintained roads are residential streets that are on a 10-year replacement cycle. Weather causes the greatest wear and tear, not the number of vehicles the roads are handling, city officials said. Besides, population doesn't necessarily indicate how heavily a road might be used, officials argued.

"In my experience it's all about the weather," said Lake Barrington Village Administrator Chris Martin. "We're talking about relatively the same kinds of streets from one suburb to the next with just slightly more traffic in more densely populated towns. We get a winter like we did last year, you lose two years on your roads no matter where you are."

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

While municipal leaders on opposite ends of the funding spectrum don't necessarily agree on the fairness of the current formula, they do agree in arguing that no one is getting enough to keep up with rising road repair costs. Some towns are pushing back repairs.

"Most of the debt the village has taken out over the last 10 years is related to infrastructure of the road network," said Carpentersville Village Manager Mark Rooney, whose town received $10,947 per mile in motor fuel taxes from the state in 2013, according to the analysis. "(The village) went a generation without raising taxes to take care of roads, and now we're paying the butcher's bill."

And that bill is getting harder to pay because there is less tax revenue coming in each year to cover the costs.

In 2013, Illinois collected nearly $1.2 billion in motor fuel taxes. Six years earlier, the state took in more than $200 million more than that, according to IDOT records. The state receives 19 cents for every gallon of gasoline sold and 21.5 cents for every gallon of diesel.

The state skims an amount off the top -- 15.5 percent, or $183 million, in 2013 -- to pay for various programs.

Of what's left, the state keeps 45.6 percent, and 54.4 percent, or $544.7 million, goes to the counties, townships and municipalities.

Municipalities received $267.4 million, and each town received roughly $24 per person, according to IDOT records. In 2007, towns were receiving almost $29 per person.

Sfondilis contends that despite the higher share Wheeling receives because of its population, the village still struggles to finance all the necessary road repairs.

"We throw another $1 million annually at roads to deal with maintenance and even at $2 million, we're way behind on keeping up," he said.

Got a tip?

Contact Jake at jgriffin@dailyherald.com or (847) 427-4602.

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