Road to nowhere
Illinois drivers question quality of state roadways, but show no interest in paying for improvements
By Ted Cox
I’m haunted by something Denny Jacobs said a year ago.
And it seems all Illinoisans should be haunted by it too — that is, if they don’t feel it already.
The retired state senator from East Moline, a former poker-playing colleague of Barack Obama in the General Assembly, was talking about the things government provides that residents find essential: safe roads, good schools, healthy water and, where the Quad Cities especially are concerned, sound levees to deter Mississippi River floodwaters and, yes, the popular arena now known as the TaxSlayer Center.
I think I was the one who referred to those things as “stuff” people want, so I asked why it was so hard to get those same people to pony up the tax revenue to fund them.
“Oh, they want the stuff,” Jacobs said. “They don’t want to pay for it.”
That’s probably common knowledge for every politician in Illinois, but it takes a retired state senator to come right out and say it: voters want government services, they just don’t want to pay for them, and they hold politicians accountable when they try to raise taxes to fund them.
Which is largely how Illinois got where it is right now.
I was reminded of that this week when the American Automobile Association released the results from a poll of state drivers. It found that only 27 percent of drivers consider Illinois roads and bridges to be in “excellent” or “good” condition. The other 73 percent consider Illinois roads only “fair” (47 percent) if not “poor” (21 percent) or “terrible” (5 percent). A firm majority, 61 percent, said they do not think current government funding is adequate to maintain roads and bridges.
Yet when asked directly if they’d be willing to pay more taxes or fees to “improve the transportation system,” an overwhelming majority, 74 percent, almost three-quarters, said they were not, with just 26 percent saying they would.
What’s wrong with this picture?
“Oh, they want the stuff. They don’t want to pay for it.”
Retired state Sen. Denny Jacobs on voters and taxes (One Illinois/Zachary Sigelko)
According to AAA: “Illinois roadways received a ‘D’ or Poor rating from the American Society of Engineers. In their infrastructure report card, ASCE states that Illinois motorists are paying a combined $4.8 billion a year or $566 per motorist in vehicle repairs due to poor road conditions.”
Keep in mind, that money is coming right out of a driver’s pocket in the form of higher insurance premiums or deductibles, unless one is willing to go through the hassle of trying to get some city or town or other government body to pay for those repairs.
A year ago, the Illinois Economic Policy Institute released a paper finding that Illinois Department of Transportation roadways have deteriorated over the last two decades due to lack of repairs and the failure to pass a major capital-spending bill. ILEPI charged that 20 percent of IDOT roads are rated in “poor” condition, up from 8 percent in 2001, and 31 percent of all bridges across the state, almost a third, are more than 50 years old, with 8 percent of IDOT bridges considered “backlogged,” meaning overdue for replacement.
The bridge on Interstate 80 that spans the Des Plaines River has become the poster child for much-needed road repairs — hopefully made before it suffers the fate of the Interstate 35W bridge across the Mississippi in Minneapolis that collapsed a decade ago.
“Funding for roadways is nearing a crisis,” said AAA spokeswoman Beth Mosher. “AAA supports raising the federal fuel tax, as it is the most viable short-term solution, provided the funds are invested in transportation improvements that increase safety and decrease congestion. AAA supports the continued evaluation of alternative long-term funding solutions by federal and state policymakers, including tolling and road usage charges.”
Unfortunately, the 403 Illinois drivers polled by AAA did not generally agree with that assessment.
Asked which revenue streams they might grudgingly support to “increase transportation funding,” 23 percent said bonds, 15 percent said gas taxes, 18 percent said tolls, 11 percent said increased license fees, 9 percent said linking the gas tax to inflation, 5 percent said increasing other taxes unassociated with roads, such as the sales tax, 13 percent said turning open roads into tollways, and a whopping 39 percent said expanded gambling.
According to ILEPI, Illinois last passed a major capital-spending bill in 2008, and before that passed one about every 10 years going back to the ‘80s to maintain state roads, bridges, and other infrastructure. ILEPI called the 2008 capital bill “a $31 billion program funded by a combination of state debt and federal and local matching funds,” adding that “it provided over $21 billion for transportation projects, including roads and bridges, public transit, rail, and airport improvements. While 10 years have come and gone, a new bill is not on the horizon.”
The Metropolitan Planning Council has said Illinois needs to invest $4 billion a year for 10 years to bring state transit infrastructure into good repair.
So that’s going to require a considerable expansion of gambling. But to finish that earlier poll question, it should be pointed out that 32 percent of respondents, almost a third, said they wouldn’t support any of those proposals to raise transportation funding.
That is an untenable position.
Forced to choose between three revenue streams — tolls, gas taxes, and a so-called driving tax based on miles traveled — two-thirds of respondents said they’d prefer higher tolls. But again that’s going to have to be a lot of tolls getting increased to get to the funding levels required.
A majority, 55 percent, did say that they’d support a graduated income tax to help fund roads and bridges, but unfortunately that’s short of the 60 percent that’s going to be required in next year’s general election to amend the state constitution and approve what Gov. Pritzker is calling a “fair tax,” creating brackets where the rich pay a higher percentage of income — and that’s only if it can first get through the General Assembly by the same 60 percent supermajority.
Last week, a state senator proposed increasing state license fees and doubling the state gas tax from 19 to 38 cents a gallon in order to raise $2 billion in revenue, which could be used to float bonds for a major capital bill. But, again, there was the usual pushback from anti-tax groups, and no one was jumping up and down with joy at the prospect of doubling the state gas tax.
But paying to maintain and actually improve roads and bridges is not just something you want, Illinois, it’s something you need, and somehow somebody has to come up with a way to pay for it. It’s just that simple.
Or, as Jacobs said a year ago: “You have to pay the piper. If you want good roads, you have to pay for them.”