Pitfalls in state investment lead to more than potholes

By Todd Maisch

From pension debt to a deep budget hole, Illinois is a state all too familiar with crisis. Another one is looming on the horizon. One pothole and one cracked road at a time that are adding up quickly.

The Illinois Department of Transportation’s latest multi-year program, which spans six years of investment, was recently released to outline the plan for road and bridge construction. It sets forth a brewing calamity in stark detail.

The overall numbers show the initial concern: $1.85 billion in spending in fiscal 2016, a decline of about 2 percent from last year’s plan. The remaining five years average about $1.3 billion in spending annually, or a decline of nearly 3 percent.

Imagine a state transportation funding plan with little state funding. Herein lies the real problems. State funds make up just $352 million of next year’s spending — a decline of nearly 70 percent from last year’s total of $1.16 billion. Since fiscal 2010, state funds in the six-year spending plan have dropped more than 94 percent. The burden of funding our road and bridge fixes will fall heavily on the federal government, and even local money will top state funds for the first time ever.

The state funding shortfall will present dire consequences. Instead of state roads being in 90 percent acceptable condition and bridges in 93 percent acceptable condition as we aim for, highway conditions will drop to just 62 percent acceptable by 2012 — or nearly two in five miles of roads considered unacceptable. State bridges will be at 86 percent acceptable condition. To bring our roads and bridges back to where they need to be, the six-year plan estimates that more than 4,600 miles and 590 bridges will need work topping a massive $7 billion in funding.

Why? Simply put, our state has not invested in transportation adequately for far too many years. We are now seeing the consequences of letting our gas tax revenue stagnate, of taking money out of the Road Fund, and from not dealing with increasing decay.

The Transportation for Illinois Coalition has warned of this day for years. Now that it is here, we must act quickly.

TFIC has advocated for several years for at least $1.8 billion in investment in our roads, bridges and transit systems. Through a creative, reasonable mix of revenue options from drivers who use this infrastructure daily, TFIC envisions a major investment in pay-as-you-go construction. That’s money used every year to tackle this large backlog of maintenance and improvements to fill potholes, smooth bumpy roadways, shore up our critical bridges and upgrade rail and transit assets each year.

Let’s prevent another crisis. For about $11 a month through the gas pump or to renew your vehicle registration, we can make great strides toward a healthy transportation system. That system will support travel for both people and goods, and leads to a better economy. Or we can keep spending low and wait for a crisis, which will undoubtedly cost more. We prefer effective investment.

Todd Maisch is president and CEO of the Illinois Chamber of Commerce and a co-chair of Transportation for Illinois Coalition, a group of business, labor, construction and transportation organizations.