From roads, to bridges, to public transit, Illinois is facing an infrastructure crisis. Earlier this spring, Jim Reilly, a senior fellow at the Metropolitan Planning Council, rolled out a proposal to address this critical issue. With more questions on our minds, we asked Jim and Metropolitan Planning Council President, MarySue Barrett, for their expert perspective on the transportation infrastructure crisis and how we can solve it. Read on for the answers and learn more by visiting Accelerate Illinois.
Gene Reineke: You've framed Illinois' infrastructure weaknesses as the next pressing issue for the state. How concerned should we be?
Jim Reilly and MarySue Barrett: New research by the Metropolitan Planning Council shows Illinois faces a $43 billion transportation infrastructure deficit: We must invest an additional $43 billion over the next ten years to make commutes smoother, trains faster and bridges sturdier. The Illinois Department of Transportation reports that one out of every five miles of state roads is in unacceptable condition. If we don’t start investing more, that figure will double within five years. Our transit assets—trains, tracks, buses—are also aging and face similar threats. Not only does this slow you and I down on a daily basis, it puts a serious damper on our state’s economy.
Gene: You mentioned in your City Club of Chicago remarks that this issue has not received as much attention, why not?
Jim & MarySue: We’ve become complacent about the daily inconveniences resulting from this decay of our transportation system, but it’s more than inconvenient. It has a huge cost to our state and to our individual wallets. The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates people in Illinois spend an extra $3.7 billion every year on car repairs from poor roads. That’s $450 every year for every driver in the state! The cost of traffic congestion to the Chicago region—lost time, lost wages, wasted fuel, and so on—is at least $7.3 billion each year. If you add these costs up, we’ll waste $110 billion over the next ten years. The vastly more appealing option is to invest $43 billion to have a transportation network that works smoothly and supports job growth. If this issue didn’t receive enough attention before, it was because we didn’t have the math to show that filling the pothole is cheaper than continuing to crash through it every day.
Gene: How does the $43 billion deficit infrastructure stand in comparison to other state financial issues such as schools or pension funding?
Jim & MarySue: This transportation deficit is something Illinois must address in 2016 as we handle our budget crisis and pension deficits. It’s impossible to put one before the other, as they are all connected, and all equally important. From a budget perspective, starting to fill the $43 billion deficit will most likely happen in conjunction with a budget deal. From a functional perspective, smooth transportation is critical to controlling costs around the state. Everything from school buses to ambulances and police cars cost more to maintain when driving over bumpy roads. Poor infrastructure inflates costs everywhere.
Gene: Is Illinois alone in having infrastructure problems that cost the state and its residents financially or is this happening at the national level as well?
Jim & MarySue: Illinois is hardly alone in facing this problem. In recent years, Congress has made it clear that states will need to contribute a larger share toward infrastructure. At the same time, the amount of funding that states are able to collect themselves has been falling steadily thanks to increased fuel economy and inflation. In Illinois, our gas tax has been fixed at 19 cents per gallon since 1991. The purchasing power of that tax has fallen 40 percent since then. Unsurprisingly, the amount of the state’s budget we invest in transportation has also fallen 40 percent over that time.
Other states have taken action to invest more. Michigan just raised its gas tax, and the Indiana House has passed a plan that would raise theirs. Wisconsin amended its constitution to create a “lockbox” for transportation funding. In all, 23 states have acted to invest more in transportation since 2012, and 16 more are currently considering action. Illinois can’t afford to be an outlier.
Gene: What kinds of organizations have lined up to support MPC’s goal of prioritizing infrastructure funding in Illinois?
Jim & MarySue: Accelerate Illinois is a growing coalition of citizens and more than 40 organizations and businesses, from AARP to UPS, that are dedicated to telling their legislators we’d rather invest the necessary amount in transportation than continue to waste a bigger amount on the resulting problems. By keeping transportation in the conversation, it won’t be forgotten when the logjam in Springfield clears. We encourage everyone to add their name or organization at www.accelerateillinois.com.
Gene: In light of the current lack of legislative progress in Springfield these days, what do you see as the likelihood of getting this infrastructure problem addressed?
Jim & MarySue: The Metropolitan Planning Council has started this honest conversation by determining the size of our transportation deficit and suggesting options to fill it. Now that we know how deep the pothole is, it’s impossible to continue to ignore it. Illinois does face daunting challenges in 2016, but the grand scale of these challenges presents an opportunity to also address our transportation deficit at the appropriate level. The more noise you and I make about this, the more likely we are to see action.