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Whitley: Higher gas tax needed for Illinois’ transportation needs

Whitley

Whitley

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Updated: October 23, 2013 6:37AM



Illinois is the transportation hub of America where waterways, interstates, railroads, and global air travel converge. Our economic health is tied directly to the health of our transportation systems, which are in dire shape.

Illinois has more interstate miles than any other state except for Texas and California, and the Federal Highway Administration reports that the state has the fifth-busiest interstate highways in the nation, with more than 31 billion miles traveled in 2011 along.

These miles are traveled along with about 16,000 miles of state roads and 900 bridges, while about 123,000 miles and thousands of bridges are maintained by local governments.

More freight and passenger rail networks meet in Chicago than anywhere else in the country. The Chicago region has the second-longest and third-busiest transit system in the country, handling roughly 1.6 million trips per day.

The Gateway to the West continues to be the Mississippi River crossings in southwest Illinois — 200 years after Lewis and Clark departed from the Illinois shore near Alton.

Our ability to move people and goods quickly and efficiently grows Illinois businesses but this growth is threatened.

The state’s Illinois Jobs Now capital construction program ends next July while federal funding from MAP-21 ends next September. As a result, Illinois will lose roughly $2 billion in transportation funding, resulting in a direct loss of almost 20,000 jobs.

Our transportation systems are deteriorating because the revenue used to pay for them do not meet current and future needs while also being used for non-transportation purposes. We use our transportation infrastructure every day — taking it for granted with little thought to what it takes to keep these systems in the best condition for our economic needs.

Most transportation infrastructure has a 30- to 50-year lifespan with repairs and basic upkeep. After that, complete rebuilds are necessary.

Throughout Illinois, our time has run out on simple repair. Interstates, railroads and mass transit are at the end of their lives. Without new investment, damage to vehicles and congestion will increase, safety concerns will grow and the cost to address the needs will skyrocket.

A report from the Transportation for Illinois Coalition — a state umbrella organization committed to making infrastructure a priority – found that we need roughly $75 billion over the next five years to meet our construction needs. The American Association of State Highway Officials estimates that every $1 spent to repair a highway while it’s in fair condition saves as much as $13 to rebuild the same highway in poor condition.

Without further investment, by 2018 30 percent of roads and 10 percent of bridges in Illinois will be in unacceptable condition, raising the chance of a Minnesota-style bridge collapse or the loss of life from unsafe road conditions. We must act now.

There is no easy solution to this problem. Illinois Jobs Now was financed primarily with fees from video poker machine revenue and higher taxes on alcohol and candy. It also tied up revenue for roads and bridges in bond payments for construction projects, committing those funds to the bonds for the next two decades and not to repair.

In May, the Transportation for Illinois Coalition supported legislation that would eliminate and replace the current flat-rate motor fuel tax of 19 cents per gallon with a 9.5 percent tax on the wholesale price of fuel. This legislation was modeled off a similar law that Virginia approved this year under a Republican governor.

In Illinois, the estimated extra revenue from 13 cents more a gallon will ensure that as gasoline prices rise and inflation grows, so does the amount we invest into transportation. It also provides a revenue stream to shrink the gap between infrastructure needs and the revenue available to meet them.

It’s time to add Illinois to the list of more than a dozen states that passed or have seriously considered plans to increase taxes for transportation infrastructure in 2013.

I wish there was a better answer, but ignoring the problem will only make it worse. Ignoring the state’s pension crisis for years has left only painful choices to fix it, but we still have time with transportation.

Investing in transportation connects Illinois goods and people to domestic and international markets. If Illinois loses its edge in transportation, we will squander our greatest competitive advantages and miss the chance to move forward.

Doug Whitley is president and chief executive officer of the Illinois Chamber of Commerce and co-chairman of the Transportation for Illinois Coalition.



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