Will transportation lockbox amendment have unintended consequences?
A constitutional amendment for a "lockbox" on gas taxes to keep state lawmakers from raiding transportation funds could be a Pandora's box that hamstrings counties and municipalities, experts warned Wednesday in Chicago.
A majority of Illinois voters approved a lockbox amendment after supporters in the construction industry warned that billions of dollars intended for roads and bridges were being siphoned off for other needs.
But an unintended consequence could mean that local governments who levy fees such as vehicle stickers or gas taxes will have their hands tied when it comes to discretionary use of that money.
"In the past they were able to use it for transportation, and most of them do, but they also were able to use it to plug (budget) holes," House Majority Leader Barbara Flynn Currie said at a Union League Club forum.
The referendum "will make it very difficult for them to continue to do that."
The amendment passed Nov. 8, and state bureaucrats are still figuring out how much money it means for the Illinois Department of Transportation and what the ramifications are statewide.
"The public believes transportation dollars should be spent on transportation," IDOT planning director Erin Aleman said.
"There's a lot of questions out there as to what funds we have and what's considered lockbox or not."
Using gas taxes to cobble together state budgets has diverted $6.8 billion from the road fund and left the region pockmarked with potholes, construction industry supporters said during the campaign.
Civic Federation President Laurence Msall called the $6 billion figure "wildly inflated" and the amendment "sloppily drafted."
As a result, there will be lawsuits, he predicted.
For example, if "the Cook County government issues debt and intermixes what might be perceived as transportation fees and uses it for non-transportation-related projects -- they will be subjected to challenges," Msall said.
But Illinois Road and Transportation Builders Association President Michael Sturino said, "I don't believe any of the numbers were wildly exaggerated. You need to give the voters more credit."
Regional Transportation Authority Chairman Kirk Dillard of Hinsdale calculated the diversion from roads, bridges and mass transit was closer to $7 billion over a decade. The RTA was working with IDOT to see what the lockbox means for mass transit.
Flynn Currie said analysts had estimated the diversion at $500 million to $8 million.
IDOT planners said it was unclear what the revenue impact of the referendum would be.
A Schaumburg official said the lockbox amendment won't affect the village because it uses state and local gas taxes for transportation solely.
"The village of Schaumburg is waiting for additional clarification from the state in order to better understand how the lockbox amendment will be administered," said transportation director Karyn Robles, "but since we use our transportation funding for transportation projects, we anticipate that the amendment will have little to no impact on us."