President's Corner

August 2018 State of our Union is Strong

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ILEPI’s Craighead: Doing Nothing on Infrastructure Hasn’t Worked

From the Springfield State Journal Register:

There’s a high cost to kicking the can down the road — well over $40 billion to be more precise.

That’s how much it will cost over the next decade to bring Illinois crumbling roads, bridges and transit systems into a state of good repair. And with transportation-related tax revenues down almost 30 percent since 1999, we are only generating about a quarter of what it will cost to do the job.

Anyone who has wasted hours in congested traffic, or shelled out hundreds of dollars fixing cars damaged by bad roads, knows this is a serious problem that is getting worse and more expensive to fix each year we fail to act.

According to a new report from the Illinois Economic Policy Institute, the backlog of Illinois Department of Transportation roadway miles requiring immediate attention has increased by 85 percent (from 1,700 to 3,300) since 2000. Sixty-two percent of the state’s bridges are over 30 years old. Roughly a third are more than 50 years old, the typical design life of a bridge. Almost 31 percent of the Regional Transportation Authority’s assets are not in a state of good repair and downstate transportation systems face a 10-year maintenance funding shortfall of $2 billion.

This is a problem that touches just about every Illinoisan. In Chicago alone, the average time wasted sitting in traffic has grown from 52 to 61 hours per year since 2000. If nothing changes, it’s going to keep getting worse. The IDOT road backlog is expected to grow by 101 percent, and the bridge backlog to grow by another 64 percent by 2023.

While some are no doubt hoping for a sudden influx of federal infrastructure spending, hope is not a strategy. The Trump Administration’s plan is based on local and state funding streams. Even if it wasn’t, it appears less likely to go anywhere with each passing news cycle.

This leaves Illinois lawmakers with no real politically popular options — only hard choices.

Doing nothing hasn’t worked. 

Another option is to explore ways to increase the revenue streams we currently use to fund transportation improvements. Raising the revenue that’s needed to fix what’s already broken would require raising the state’s gasoline and special fuel taxes. Since 2012, at least 26 other states have raised taxes on motor fuels to repair their infrastructure. We could also consider some type of fee for vehicle miles traveled, which could generate billions of dollars for transportation purposes.

While none of these options are likely to be politically popular, each is arguably better for our economy, commuters and highway users than doing nothing. With the average driver paying almost 30 percent less in transportation fees and taxes than they did in 1999, even a half measure would be a step forward.

Ultimately, we need to change the way the public thinks about our critical transportation infrastructure. In truth, it is really no different than any other public utility — yet the average Illinois consumer pays far less in direct transportation fees than they do for internet access, to say nothing of electricity, gas, water, phones or cable TV. Even if we increased motor fuel taxes or added a fee for vehicle miles traveled, the average person would still pay less (although they’d also probably spend less time in traffic and less money on preventable vehicle maintenance).

For Illinois lawmakers in an election year, these are no doubt uncomfortable subjects. But it doesn’t make them any less pressing or worthy of discussion.

This conversation about our deteriorating transportation systems is long overdue. Until it begins in earnest, we’ll continue learning the hard way that when you ignore a problem, it only gets worse and more expensive to fix.

Mary Craighead is a transportation policy analyst for the Illinois Economic Policy Institute, https://illinoisepi.org/



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