State & Region

Illinois road, bridge maintenance funding looks bleak

Money to maintain Illinois highways and bridges drops steeply in the coming year and could lead to significantly deteriorated roadways in the next five years unless officials find a fix, Gov. Bruce Rauner’s administration said Thursday.

The Illinois Department of Transportation released its annual, five-year outlook for building roads, fixing potholes and easing congestion, devoting $8.4 billion to the task. In the fiscal year that begins July 1, IDOT plans to spend $1.85 billion. That’s exactly half of this year’s spending and annual spending through 2021 could average less than $1.4 billion without additional revenue.

“A high-quality transportation network is a job-creator and economic asset,” Acting Transportation Secretary Randy Blankenhorn said in a prepared statement. “But just maintaining our existing system will be a challenge, with the ability to take on any new projects extremely difficult.”

Without action, IDOT reported that by 2021, the Prairie State roads could deteriorate to the point that only six in 10 miles is in “acceptable condition,” with 86 percent of bridges acceptable as opposed to 93 percent today.

In addition to a budget deficit of as much as $6 billion in the coming year, several factors crimp road spending. A $31 billion capital-construction plan which buoyed road work ended last year. The state’s road fund collects money from vehicle registrations – stagnant for the last decade at about $1.3 billion annually – and a motor fuel tax which, with falling gas prices, dropped about $100 million in the past two years from a 2004 high of just under $600 million.

What’s more, to erase a deficit in the current budget left when a temporary income-tax increase was allowed to roll back in January at incoming governor Rauner’s insistence, $492 million was taken from the road fund to pay for other pressing needs.

The Transportation for Illinois Coalition, a group of business and civic leaders promoting transportation improvement, has sounded the six-in-10-mile alarm for several years and said this spring that “sweeping” money from the road fund would exacerbate the problem.

The coalition, which did not have an immediate comment Thursday, has proposed collecting $1.8 billion more annually by raising fuel taxes and diverting sales tax on gasoline to transportation needs. It went nowhere with lawmakers last spring – an election year – but the coalition continues to tout it, pointing out that the motor fuel tax hasn’t been increased in a quarter-century.

Blankenhorn, declaring a “structural” problem of roller-coaster funding with the beginning and end of each capital plan, has not suggested a remedy. He was in Rockford Thursday at one of a series of public meetings before delivering a report to the General Assembly.

The IDOT report lists its priorities in the coming term as road maintenance, including reconstruction and widening; bridge maintenance, which takes in replacement and rehabilitation; congestion relief and expansion.