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Illinois government should invest in transportation projects

Enough with the political gamesmanship, regional posturing and procrastination over approving a capital program to finance much needed and long overdue public works construction projects for Illinois. We need positive action, and we need it now.

Our General Assembly hasn’t approved a construction program in 13 years. The last of the Illinois First funds dried up three years ago. There are no major highway projects underway in the state, except for the work financed by the Illinois Toll Highway Authority in the Chicago metropolitan area. Over the last five years, the Blagojevich administration has short–changed new highway construction, maintenance and rehabilitation by routinely redirecting road funds to finance other government programs. We have seen only limited activity on hundreds of construction projects identified as priorities by Illinois Congressmen in the 2005 federal highway and transit bill.

Politician inaction is jeopardizing reliable public transportation service for more than a million daily commuters. More than $ 1 billion in federal funds secured for construction and expansion of transit systems are in jeopardy of being lost to other states for lack of state provided matching funds. While federal and local governments have partnered with railroad companies to move forward with a multi–billion dollar construction program to alleviate rail congestion, the state of Illinois has failed to contribute its share.

In addition to billions of dollars worth of transportation projects, the state has numerous other brick and mortar obligations to communities, universities and state facilities that have also been neglected.

Despite the obvious need, the simple fact is our politicians won’t acknowledge the "T" word and are afraid to vote to raise taxes or fees in an election year.

Yet, it is illogical to think a significant new construction program can occur without new revenues. No one wants to pay more taxes, but building and maintaining the state’s infrastructure requires periodic revenue increases because the growth in user fee revenue has not kept pace with construction costs.

Multi–year construction programs require bonds to be sold and dedicated revenue sources committed to assure repayment of the bond obligations. Legislators know the state’s current revenues are committed to annual operating expenses and cannot sustain a new bonding program.

The only politically acceptable revenue generator appears to be expanded gambling. Gambling is an option most politicians see as a big dollar generator from voluntary contributors, but many question the reliance upon sin taxes as the preferred option to support government spending. Gambling expansion would help meet the revenue needs, but it’s not enough.

Traditionally, major capital programs in Illinois have been championed by governors willing to accept the political heat that comes with asking for tax increases. Legislators expect governors to exhibit leadership on behalf of the whole state while providing the political cover many legislators deem necessary to support user fee increases, even as they seek projects for their constituents.

Gov. Blagojevich has not been willing to assume that role.

His solution for road and bridge needs has been to ignore them. His answer for transit funding has been predicated on temporary transfers and short–term fixes. Responsible legislators want assurances that any capital program also results in long–term financial stability for the transit agency operations. Legislators deserve confidence regarding how the money will be spent.

The governor’s recent proposals to address public transit shortfalls have resembled the same fiscal shell game legislators have seen during the annual budget process. They know merely transferring funds from one pocket to another does not fix the revenue hole.

We need statesmen who will acknowledge that a bond program isn’t about the next election but rather the next generation. Championing an infrastructure program requires public servants who understand that infrastructure legislation requires a 20–year vision. It also requires honesty about the magnitude of the undertaking and willingness to ask voters to sacrifice today to meet tomorrow’s needs. It is fundamentally the same leap of faith we undertake when we choose to plant a tree our grandchildren will appreciate.

Taxpayers understand we cannot afford to ignore basic up keep on our homes or fail to reinvest in the buildings and equipment of our businesses. We must not continue to postpone and ignore the need to raise taxes and fees in order to invest in our state’s future. Sound fiscal policy dictates that we acknowledge the cost of construction. Failure to reinvest in the state’s transportation networks jeopardizes job creation and our economy.

–Doug Whitley is president and CEO of the Illinois Chamber of Commerce. He can be reached at (312) 983–7100 or dwhitley@ilchamber.org.

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