Before our roads are ice-coated and potholes blossom, it's a good time to bring up a sore subject, so we’ll yank the bandage off quickly: We think Illinois lawmakers should discuss raising the gas tax, with some important limitations.
Like we said, a sore subject. Or maybe the elephant in the room.
Increasing the state motor fuel fee, now at 19 cents per gallon, may be the only responsible way to finance repairs to our rapidly deteriorating state infrastructure.
That’s a depressing reality, but let's acknowledge the severity of the situation. The American Society of Civil Engineers gave the state a score of C-minus for infrastructure. Sixteen bridges are "structurally deficient" or "functionally obsolete."
We all know that reliable roads and bridges are the backbone of the state — the linchpin of economic success and general quality of life — and infrastructure is woefully underfunded. The last major capital improvement program, Illinois Jobs Now, is wrapping up after selling $12.7 billion in bonds out of the $16.3 billion authorized six years ago under the Quinn administration, which used money from video gambling, sales tax on liquor and other revenue streams.
The fixes are barely keeping up. The Metropolitan Planning Council, which has called for hiking the fuel tax, projects the state will have to spend about $43 billion over the next 10 years to improve the transportation network. But how?
We could borrow more, although the state budget disgrace has put our credit rating in the basement and our interest rate would be outrageous. We could make cuts in other budget areas, create more tollways, elevate registration fees or have public-private partnerships.
Those all are worth considering.
So is the state gas tax.
In place since 1991, it is the key funding source for road construction and maintenance. It’s time for lawmakers to give it a hard look, with some important caveats.
Money generated is limited to major infrastructure — no raiding to cover pension obligations or pet projects in a lawmaker’s home district. We’re talking bridges, roads and highways.
Like you, we don’t like paying more in taxes. Our state has a nasty habit of saddling working-class people and middle-class families with too many fees and charges, not to mention the income tax increase foisted onto us by lawmakers to balance the budget. We also realize such a tax isn’t a silver bullet because as the fuel efficiency of vehicles improves, less cash comes rolling in. And obviously there other local and federal taxes on gas as well.
Yet, from the state’s perspective, the motor fuel tax is reliable and equitable. Those who use roads the most buy the most gas and therefor pay the most. That’s fair.
And if the process for picking projects is transparent and ensures the worst problems are fixed first, the system makes sense. The funds should be distributed across the state based on transportation needs and population.
Whether lawmakers want the same transparency is another matter. Gov. Bruce Rauner is opposed to a gas tax increase, preferring public-private partnerships instead.
The Trump administration also is expected to release details about a $1 trillion infrastructure improvement plan, which could be a factor.
It’s a moving target but this much is clear: Illinois infrastructure needs fixing before it’s too late. The longer we wait, the worse it gets.