Senate subcommittee hears calls for capital bill
Former Peoria Congressman and U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood says, ‘Illinois is one big pothole’
By Ted Cox
CHICAGO — A state Senate subcommittee heard testimony in Chicago from several experts Monday calling for the adoption of the first Illinois capital bill in a decade to address aging infrastructure.
“Illinois is one big pothole right now,” said Ray LaHood, the former Peoria congressman and U.S. transportation secretary.
“Illinois needs a capital bill,” LaHood added, citing the state’s status as a national freight hub. “It’s not about what to fix … it’s about how we pay for it.”
LaHood was one of several experts suggesting an increase in the state gas tax as the place to start. He said 29 states have recently passed increases in their gas taxes to pay for infrastructure improvements. “Raising the gas tax is the best way to meet this critical need,” he added.
The conventional thinking is that a new, consistent revenue stream, such as an increase in the gas tax tied to inflation, would enable the state to float billions of dollars in bonds to pay for the capital bill.
According to LaHood, there are 60,000 structurally deficient bridges across the nation.
Kirk Dillard, the former Republican state senator who now heads the Regional Transportation Authority in Chicago and its suburbs, said in no uncertain terms, “The state has let infrastructure hit a breaking point.”
Metra Director James Derwinski said his commuter-rail agency has the “oldest fleet in the entire country,” with some train cars dating back to 1953, and they’re crossing some bridges that are 100 years old.
John Szabo, executive director of the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, said the state is “in dire need of reinvestment.” He warned, “Instead of preparing for the future, Illinois is falling further behind.”
State Sen. Andy Manar of Bunker Hill, co-chairman of the Subcommittee on Capital & Transportation, which met Monday in the Bilandic Building in Chicago, called for “a bipartisan agreement in order to get this accomplished for the state.”
Sen. Martin Sandoval of Cicero, co-chairman of the subcommittee, bemoaned how “we haven’t had a lot of Republican support” on the issue.
“Why is it so difficult?” Sandoval said. “They know what needs to be done.”
LaHood and Dillard, both former Republican legislators, and former Quincy newspaper publisher Tom Oakley all said they’d lobby for bipartisan support for a major capital bill, which would be the state’s first since Gov. Pat Quinn passed one in 2009. With gas-tax revenue declining due to the increase in fuel-efficient cars and trucks, they also mentioned extending the state’s sales tax to some services as a way to raise revenue, and LaHood also backed the expansion of toll roads, but all emphasized that the new funding must be earmarked for roads, bridges, and transit, and not used for other initiatives such as hiring more state troopers.
Although Dave Bender, president of the American Council for Engineering Companies of Illinois, said, “Electric vehicles must pay their fair share,” Sandoval rejected a tax on car and truck mileage.
Sandoval called that proposal “a lead balloon here in Illinois.”
Bender called the need for infrastructure spending “a crisis 29 years in the making,” since Illinois last raised the gas tax. “It’s not a popular topic with Illinois voters,” he granted, but he also pointed out that the state’s gas tax ranks 41st in the nation by state, and that 45 percent of Illinois bridges are 50 years old or older, with most of those built with a life expectancy of 50 to 60 years.
MarySue Barrett of the Metropolitan Planning Council asked the rhetorical question, “What’s the cost of inaction?”
LaHood said that health care and infrastructure are the top issues for illinois voters right now, and state Sen. Pat McGuire, a Joliet Democrat, made pointed reference to “the infamous Des Plaines River bridge” on Interstate 80 as being in critical need of repairs.
Bender added that the state is in danger of losing federal highway funds if it doesn’t assume a larger share of spending on state highways.
Clayton Harris III, executive director of the Illinois International Port Authority, and Ron Burke, executive director of the Active Transportation Alliance, said any bill that passes should also benefit the state’s ports and improve roads for bicycle and pedestrian safety, with Burke insisting, “Transportation is more than cars and trucks.” LaHood also suggested many import-export companies would welcome a public-private partnership on ports.
Manar pointed out they’d already held six subcommittee meetings on the capital bill, and he expressed a sense of urgency that the bill be completed and passed before the scheduled end of the General Assembly’s current session May 31.
“We really owe it to the public to get this right,” Bender said.