Herald-Whig View

Illinois Safe Roads Amendment will end raids on transportation budget

Posted: Sep. 25, 2016 12:01 am

ILLINOIS voters can reform state government in a limited yet very important way when they cast their ballots by approving the Safe Roads Amendment.

The constitutional amendment, approved by both the Illinois House and Senate with overwhelming bipartisan support in May, would put all revenue raised through the state's motor fuel tax, tollways, licenses and vehicle registration fees into a protected fund, also referred to as a "lockbox."

In other words, this money only could be spent on the operation and maintenance of public roads, bridges, intercity railways, mass transit and airports, among other things. Most important, the amendment, which has much broader implications than the name implies, would protect Illinois' investment in its critical transportation infrastructure by preventing the diversion of this money for other purposes.

The advocacy group Transportation for Illinois Coalition found that more than $6.8 billion in funds earmarked for transportation has been raided from the state's road fund for other uses in the past 12 years, including $500 million in the last year. To put that into perspective, that equates to more than three years of funding under the Illinois Department of Transportation's current six-year plan.

Clearly, these diversions have had a negative impact on the transportation system in Illinois. Nearly 90 percent of state highways and bridges were rated as in "good" or better shape in 2005. However, according to the latest statistics, half of the state's highways and 4,200 bridges are rated in "poor" condition, and that deterioration will only continue without passage of this amendment.

Moreover, a recent analysis by the Metropolitan Planning Council estimates Illinois would have to appropriate an additional $43 billion in transportation funding over a period of 10 years to erase the maintenance backlog and bring the state's crumbling infrastructure back to good condition.

The repercussions are stark for all Illinoisans.

The U.S. Department of Transportation reported last year that Illinois drivers spent $2.4 billion on car repairs due to bad roads -- an average cost of $292 per driver, a figure that rises to $441 per driver when wasted fuel and time are calculated.

In addition, diversions have cost the state critical jobs. If $6.8 billion had been spent on construction projects, as intended, it would have created or sustained 5,000 jobs over the past decade. Those would have been head-of-household jobs, helping sustains schools, retail stores and service providers in communities across the state.

Instead, those jobs were lost because money earmarked for transportation projects was not available.

Furthermore, unsafe roads have cost people their lives. Illinois traffic fatalities rose as high as 1,454 in 2003, but that number fell as national highway standards focused more on safety. The state reported 835 traffic fatalities in 2010, but highway deaths have increased as infrastructure has deteriorated.

Likewise, highway repairs will have an increasingly high cost as pavement deteriorates. 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.

Clearly, poor infrastructure puts a strain on the economy and makes it difficult for the state to retain and attract businesses.

"A lack of transportation funding has put our safety and economy in jeopardy," explained Todd Maisch, co-chairman of the Transportation for Illinois Coalition.

The Safe Roads Amendment can begin to reverse those troubling trends.

It has won broad support from a coalition of labor, business, consumer groups and civic leaders. Public opinion polls have shown strong support -- 85 percent in one poll conducted by the Illinois Chamber of Commerce -- primarily because many respondents mistakenly thought state law protected fuel taxes and transportation fees from diversions.

A challenge is that the ballot issue is written in complex legalese, rather than in an easy-to-understand, straightforward manner for what should be a simple proposition.

The decision is clear. We strongly urge all Illinoisans to vote "yes" on the Safe Roads Amendment.