By Jackson Elliott
This year, Illinois will kick off road repairs, funded by the Rebuild Illinois Act, which Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed in 2018 to improve the state’s infrastructure. The act proposes $23 billion in spending on road repairs alone. The total budget of $41 billion will be partly funded by taxes on gas and vehicle registration. Illinois residents already pay more per capita for their roads compared to other Midwest states in the form of vehicle license fees, tire and gasoline taxes. Mike Sturino, the president and CEO of the industry group Illinois Road and Transportation Builders Association, said the planned improvements are long overdue. The public administrator, attorney and land use planner spoke about why Illinois pays more for roads than surrounding states and the Illinois Exodus as well as the association’s lawsuit against Cook County for rerouting $250 million originally meant for road repair into other projects.
Are Illinois’ roads really in need of repair?
The last time the government increased transportation taxes was 1990. Costs were increasing, the condition of our major expressways as well as all our local roads and bridges were steadily deteriorating because there was no improvement in the financial picture. The bipartisan legislature and the governor came together and did the right thing by investing in our infrastructure, which will keep us moving.
How often do states normally pass big transportation bills?
It varies. Illinois has the dubious distinction of being the second to last state to increase its motor fuel tax until 2019. Other states managed to keep up with the costs associated with rebuilding the infrastructure. The problem is that building new replacement infrastructure costs around three times as much as maintaining existing infrastructure. We’re going to be put back on the right track of having much more cost-effective maintenance programs.
Illinois road construction costs $200 more per capita than the average cost in other Great Lakes states, according to nonpartisan think tank Tax Policy Center. Why are we paying more?
Surrounding states don’t have a skilled and unionized workforce, so labor costs will be higher in Illinois. That’s the primary reason. Our infrastructure is also much more expensive. That’s just the complexity and costs associated with a dense urban core. Building a highway through a cornfield will be a lot less expensive. I predict that although our labor costs are higher than the surrounding states, costs will come down because we’re getting smart about spending the money on maintenance.
Will new infrastructure bring people into Illinois?
Yes, it’s going to make it attractive for businesses to come to Illinois and set up roots. You can try to guess all the reasons people are leaving the state. Some blame tax policy, some blame the weather, some blame political conditions, some blame structural deficit issues. I would suggest that a state making investments to build a robust economy will keep residents here and attract new residents.
I’ve talked with a lot of business owners who say the high gas taxes that fund the bill harm their businesses. Will the new infrastructure balance out the higher taxes?
Will it offset some of our other structural woes? I’d like to think so. It makes us a more competitive economy, attracting business which attracts people.
The Illinois Road and Transportation Builders Association has an ongoing lawsuit against Cook County for misuse of road building funds. Are you concerned that there’s room for corruption or misuse in the $24 billion of Rebuild Illinois spending?
Yes. One of the bases of our litigation against Cook County was that they were clearly in violation of the state’s Safe Roads Amendment, which says road funds must be used on roads. Their view is that the amendment doesn’t apply to Cook County.
When the Rebuild Illinois bill passed, it reaffirmed that the Safe Roads Amendment applies to every unit of local government. The lower Illinois Circuit Court judge who ruled against us apparently wasn’t quite cognizant that the Constitution meant what it said. The legislature said, “No, this is what it means.” We are remaining vigilant with all units of government to ensure that they act in a manner consistent with the Safe Roads Amendment.
Correction: Illinois road construction costs $200 more per capita than the average cost in other Great Lakes states, according to Tax Policy Center.