Editorial: State needs to think long term in fixing roads, bridges
Above all, Todd Maisch, president and CEO of the Illinois Chamber of Commerce, wants transportation funding to be more than an "afterthought" in this legislative session. With little more than four weeks to go, time is running short to avoid that fate.
The chamber, not generally known for its support of tax measures, is pushing an effort to, among other things, swap a 15 cents-a-gallon gas tax increase for a substantial decrease in the sales tax on gasoline as a means of funding $2 billion a year to fix the state's deteriorating roads and bridges. In a conversation with our editorial board last week, Maisch extolled the benefits of the chamber-backed plan, all while stressing that what's really important is for the state to do something, to finally produce the first capital bill in a decade to maintain Illinois roads and bridges.
"Don't let transportation get sidelined. That needs to be the top priority," he urged. "Our transportation system is so vital to our economic future. We cannot allow it to ... be an afterthought."
The chamber is not alone in that sentiment. A coalition of labor and business interests agrees and worked with the chamber to develop what became House Bill 3823. Another group's bill in the Senate would, among other things, double the existing gas tax of 19 cents a gallon.
Anyone who looks at the statistics on the quality of Illinois' roads and bridges will quickly recognize the need for urgency. But it's not necessarily a given that a gasoline tax increase has to be in the mix to provide it. Most proposals, including the two existing bills, call for increased registration fees among "multiple funding sources." Republican state Rep. David McSweeney wants to pay for a capital bill with sports gambling money. But there is another voice that also needs to be brought into the conversation that has less to do with where the money comes from than how it is managed and maintained.
At a legislative hearing on transportation needs Monday, Joseph C. Szabo, executive director of the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, acknowledged the need to act, and soon, to repair the state's crumbling infrastructure, but he added that such action needs to include some critical considerations.
Chief among these is sustainability. One reason Illinois is in the position it is in is that its gasoline tax hasn't budged since 1990, while inflation has relentlessly pushed up costs over the course of 19 years.
CMAP and similar agencies following Illinois transportation issues note that the quality of the state's roadways is destined for uncertainty as long as funding to maintain them is subject to the fits and starts of political will. Unless whatever approach to transit maintenance takes inflation into account, we will be bound to seasons of feast or famine for road and transit work that almost inevitably results in a backward slide. Hand-in-hand with that concern is a need to make sure that funds are distributed to where they are needed most and collected from the users who most benefit from them.
Neither of the two bills currently cooling their heels in committee contains all these features, though each of them has some of them. As Maisch took pains to acknowledge, the legislation that ultimately survives the crucible of Springfield in May may not precisely reflect either the chamber's approach or any other. But assuming that something will pass, if we really want it to be more than afterthought, it will prize sustainability and objective ranking based on need just as much as it massages the raw details of producing revenue.