Bill Knight column for Thurs., Fri., or Sat., May 15, 16 or 17
Expiring are Illinois Jobs Now – the law that funds maintenance and construction of roads, highways, and public transit, adopted in 2009 and ending July 1, and the federal Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century (MAP-21), enacted in 2012 and expiring Sept. 30 (if its funds don’t run out sooner).
That trust fund usually operates from the 18.4 cents/gallon federal gas tax. But the tax hasn’t increased since 1993, and rising costs have outpaced revenues by as much as $20 billion annually in recent years.
The need also is becoming dangerous. The American Society of Civil Engineers gives the nation’s infrastructure a D+ grade in its annual report card. Statewide, 2,275 bridges are structurally deficient, according to the American Road & Transportation Builders Association says, and that will only worsen without attention, advocates say.
“If we don’t do anything,” said Jennifer Morrison from Transportation For Illinois Coalition (TFIC), “that would mean one in every three miles would be in unacceptable condition."
TFIC has proposed a way to fund Illinois’ transportation infrastructure by directing sales taxes on fuel paid at the pump back to transportation spending, increasing vehicle registration fees, and broadening the sales tax so that transportation-related services like auto repairs and car washes would be spent only on transportation. TFIC also proposes increasing the fuel tax by 4 cents/gallon for gasoline and 7 cents/gallon on diesel – taxes that haven't increased for road purposes since 1990. Altogether, that would help create a state fund of $1.8 billion annually to provide steady spending for transportation.
TFIC’s report “Catalyst to a Better Economy,” says, “The $1.8 billion in new annual revenue would fund pay-as-you-go spending and bonding to ensure the state gets its roads into 90 percent satisfactory shape and its bridges to 93 percent satisfactory shape, as well as providing millions of dollars for long overdue transit improvements in the congested Chicagoland area.
“This proposal would mean Illinoisans would see immediate improvement in the quality of roads, bridges and transit, and the State would be positioned to maintain the system going forward.”
Fuel prices in the last decade have ranged from $1.50/gallon to more than $4/gallon. Such fluctuations, plus better mileage and motorists driving less, have affected the funds. The biggest factor is inflation. If the fuel tax had kept up with inflation, it would be 32 cents/gallon today.
Illinois Chamber of Commerce president Doug Whitley, a TFIC co-chair, stresses TFIC’s earmarking transportation taxes for transportation spending.
“The centerpiece to fund TFIC’s proposal requires the reallocation of existing tax and fee receipts that are derived from highway users, but currently deposited in the state’s General Fund rather than in a road or construction fund,” Whitley said. “There are an additional $170 million in various fees and budget allocations that the TFIC has identified as being inappropriately directed toward some governmental expense other than building and maintaining roads or operating the Illinois Department of Transportation.
“You have to invest in your future,” Whitley continued. “Being able to make sure you can get workers to and from your locations, get your goods and services moved, is invaluable.”
However, some businesses say commerce would be hurt, and earmarking transportation-related revenues for transportation spending affects programs that benefit from diverting about $1 billion, which the state’s General Fund wouldn’t have to spend.
Gov. Pat Quinn’s six-year, $8.6 billion plan for addressing infrastructure seems ambitious, but it’s vague on funding details.
Meanwhile, the prospect for the idea is anybody’s guess, but since none of the dozens of Illinois legislators TFIC says it’s contacted has agreed to sponsor it, it doesn’t look good. Usually, tax bills don’t occur until the end of the legislative session, so something could still occur. But it’s also six months before an election and lawmakers already are contemplating Quinn’s request to make permanent the five-year-old temporary income tax increase, which is set to expire next year.
Quinn barely mentioned transportation issues in his budget message in March, and Republican gubernatorial candidate Bruce Rauner has said he wants the state to spend more on infrastructure improvement, but he said he didn't think Illinois' motor fuel tax would need to be increased.
“Legislators are willing to cut the ribbons, but not as willing to vote for the fee increases needed to fund the programs,” Whitley said.
[PICTURED: logo from transportation-for-illinois-coalition.com]