Asking Illinois taxpayers to pay more to support investments in the roads and bridges they travel on every day is a real challenge, as evidenced by the recent attention given to proposals to increase the state gas tax and to ask drivers to pay for the miles they travel. The state’s ongoing budget stalemate is doing nothing to ease taxpayer frustration.
But there is a movement in Springfield we think can start to change the conversation over transportation investment. It starts with making sure the dollars intended to fix our infrastructure actually get spent on those projects.
For far too long in Illinois, that has not been the case. From 2003 to 2015, a whopping $6.4 billion in tax dollars collected for transportation infrastructure were diverted for other purposes. That averages out to more than $500 million each year in dollars paid at the gas pump or through other fees that drivers paid, only to have them sent to fill other holes in the state budget instead of keeping our road and bridge conditions improved.
Ask taxpayers whether they’re ready to pay more for our infrastructure, or the lawmakers who represent them to vote for paying more for improvements, and they’re likely to say they want to make sure the money being sent to infrastructure gets spent properly first. As co-chairs of the Transportation for Illinois Coalition, we wholeheartedly agree.
We applaud the Illinois House for recently overwhelmingly approving HJRCA 36, an initiative led by Rep. Brandon Phelps and Sen. Bill Haine and championed by dozens of Democrats and Republicans alike. The measure would guarantee the money raised for road and other transportation purposes can only be used that way, creating a “lockbox” for these important infrastructure funds.
The next step is for the Illinois Senate to take up this measure soon. If it is approved by next week, the measure will go to the November ballot – and voters will be able to decide if this strong protection for infrastructure investment is added to the state Constitution.
We have pushed for many years to make our infrastructure a top priority in Springfield and Washington. Illinois is the nation’s transportation hub, carrying millions of people to and from work and freight and goods from around the world to their destinations to support our economy. Yet we are facing a crisis in our transportation network’s condition that, without an influx of new dollars soon, will result in thousands more miles of roads and many more bridges in unacceptable condition.
We need to get serious about what it will take to fix our infrastructure challenges for the long term, and those will not be easy discussions. In the meantime, we can take a good first step by getting HJRCA 36 approved in the Senate and putting it on the fall ballot to ask voters the key question: Why can’t Illinois guarantee every dollar of road and bridge funding goes to fixing our roads and bridges?
Todd Maisch is president and CEO of the Illinois Chamber of Commerce. Michael Kleinik is executive director of the Chicago Laborers District Council-LMCC.