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Thursday, April 10, 2014 12:01 am

Pay at the pump, fix the roads


A group of unions and private sector groups say the state needs a gasoline tax increase to fix Illinois’ roads.

The state’s major funding program for infrastructure improvements, Illinois Jobs Now!, was initiated by Gov. Pat Quinn in 2009 as a five-year program and ends this year. The lack of another capital funding plan and the declining condition of Illinois’ roads have led the Transportation for Illinois Coalition to call for a higher state motor fuel tax. The group has suggested adding 4 cents per gallon onto the price of gasoline and 7 cents per gallon on diesel.

The Transportation for Illinois Coalition is a group of about 50 businesses, unions and nonprofit organizations that want to see funds set aside for improving the state’s roads, bridges, airports and transit systems. The group consists of the Illinois Chamber of Commerce, the Midwest High Speed Rail Association and several regional groups, but includes no legislators.

Drivers now pay 19 cents per gallon in state tax for gasoline and 21.5 cents for diesel at Illinois pumps. In addition to a higher gas tax, the group proposed to eliminate the ethanol credit, increase vehicle registration fees by $18 and create new service taxes for driver-related services such as automotive repairs and oil changes.

Gov. Pat Quinn didn’t have much to say about transportation funding in his budget address March 26. The only mention he made of transportation was a proposal to form a bipartisan group to develop a new capital plan for the next five years. On April 7 Quinn announced $100 million will go to local infrastructure projects as a part of the Illinois Jobs Now! program.

No legislators are backing the coalition’s plan yet. Both Representatives Raymond Poe and Rich Brauer, who represent Springfield, have plans to meet with coalition leaders before taking a stance on capital funding, according to a representative from Poe’s office.

Supporting a tax increase during an election year generally isn’t something many legislators are eager to do. However, Doug Whitley, president and CEO of the Illinois Chamber of Commerce and co-chair of the coalition, said the coalition hopes this proposal triggers further discussion, and parts of the plan may be revised.

Whitley said the group also wants to ensure all state sales tax revenue from the motor fuel tax is being spent on transportation and it wants to see that road funds are not being spent on anything other than transportation-related projects.

The proposed tax increase and revenue changes would contribute an annual $1.8 billion in new funds for infrastructure. Of the $1.8 billion, 20 percent would go to state transit systems, mainly in the Chicago area, and 80 percent, or $1.44 billion, would be spent on roads, bridges and airports across the state.

Of the $1.44 billion that would go to non-transit improvements, 60 percent of the funds would go to state transportation such as interstate repairs and the remaining 40 percent would go to local districts and projects.

The 2014 American Society of Civil Engineers annual report card gave Illinois’ roads a “D+,” or “at risk.”

Mike Kleinik, co-chair of the coalition and executive director of the Laborers District Council Chicago, a group of construction-related unions, said one reason transportation isn’t adequately funded in Illinois is because the motor fuel tax is a flat tax. Gas prices go up, but the tax rate stays the same.

He also said improved gas mileage in newer vehicles has hurt motor fuel tax revenues.

“So it’s time to make a change in the way that we receive dollars to maintain the state’s roads,” he said.

The last time the motor fuel tax was increased was 1990.

In addition to the Illinois Jobs Now! program set to end soon, the federal Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century (Map-21) program, which authorizes funds for projects across the country, is also set to expire this year.

Whitley said the 2009 Illinois Jobs Now! bill was the first capital funding bill in Illinois since 1999. He said the group doesn’t want to see that amount of time elapse before another bill is passed.

“We do not think it is in the best interest of the people of Illinois to wait 10 years between capital bills,” he said.

 Contact Lauren P. Duncan at intern@illinoistimes.com.

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