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Advocates warn of transit funding drop-off

Published: Monday, April 28, 2014 10:08 p.m. CDT • Updated: Monday, April 28, 2014 10:09 p.m. CDT
Caption
(Seth Perlman)
Road construction crewman work on a roadway Monday in Springfield. A group of transit advocates is pointing to uncertain funding from Congress and rapidly declining state spending on roads, bridges and railways to bolster its plan for raising taxes and fees for long-term investment. The Transportation for Illinois Coalition is sending a letter to state lawmakers this week warning that acceptable road and bridge conditions are in jeopardy over the next five years without significant new money. (AP Photo)

SPRINGFIELD – An influential group of Illinois transportation advocates is warning lawmakers of a drop-off in spending on roads and bridges and pointing out a murky federal funding picture as it tries to bolster its case for an aggressive tax plan it said would provide sound financing.

The Transportation for Illinois Coalition plans to deliver a letter to state lawmakers today warning them of looming bankruptcy in the federal endowment for road building and the expiration this year of Gov. Pat Quinn’s $31 billion statewide construction program called Illinois Jobs Now.

“State funding for transportation was inadequate for too long before Illinois Jobs Now and the dramatic decline now that the program is expiring will lead to backsliding in the condition of our roads and bridges,” reads the letter, obtained in advance by The Associated Press.

But just as Congress struggles with how to shore up the Highway Trust Fund, scheduled to run out of money this summer, the state Legislature faces the unpleasant task of finding new revenue for its portion of infrastructure building and maintenance.

The transportation coalition has proposed creating a state fund of $1.8 billion annually to provide steady spending for roads, bridges and more. But it would mean a 4 cents-a-gallon increase on gasoline and a 7-cent hike on diesel – taxes that haven’t increased for road purposes since 1990.

The plan also would direct sales tax on fuel paid at the pump back to transportation funding, increase vehicle registration fees and broaden the sales tax so that they applied to services such as auto repairs and car washes.

The proposal lands on lawmakers’ desks at the very time – six months before an election – they also have been asked by Quinn to make a 5-year-old temporary income tax increase, which is set to roll back next year, permanent.

The coalition points out that in Quinn’s five-year transportation improvement program, spending drops 58 percent, from $3.7 billion this year to $1.6 billion in 2019. And that assumes Capitol Hill solves its funding problems and state funding remains steady. The letter notes that an increase in the federal gas tax has been ruled out by both Democrats and Republicans.

“Either they’re going to have to address the shortfall or they’re just going to tell the states, ‘It’s time for you to start picking up more of the load for yourself,’” said John Lowder, a lobbyist and coalition member. “... We would be in no position to deal with that.”

And with funding at current levels, the letter argues, roads in “acceptable” condition will fall from 85 percent to 61 percent by 2020.

“You’re going to have longer travel times, you’re going to have increased damage to vehicles ... you’re not going to get as much fuel efficiency out of your car just because of the roughness of the road,” said Kevin Burke, executive vice president of the Illinois Asphalt Paving Association.

Quinn wants to put together a bipartisan group of lawmakers to develop plans for a new statewide construction program, but the coalition isn’t satisfied with that approach, because the money is borrowed and isn’t replenished.

Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Martin Sandoval agreed funding must be more reliable – and that it’s a tough sell.

“A sustainable investment, that’s consistent, that treats our infrastructure like a utility is the way to go,” Sandoval said. “The challenge for the Legislature is to convince the voters, to appeal to the voters.”

The coalition’s new fund of $1.8 billion would be a recurring source of “pay-as-you-go” money. That would be on top of the existing road fund of $2.7 billion, including $1.5 billion in state money from the current 20 cents-a-gallon motor fuel tax, registration and license fees.

Opposing the plan is the Illinois Petroleum Marketers Association, which says tax increases would be passed onto motorists. The association has complained that the state should stop diverting money from the road fund to other purposes, but the transportation coalition, which has worked to end diversions, contends there is very little road fund money going to other accounts.

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