Lockbox amendment makes sense for Illinois

Brook Ward

The first thing Illinois voters will see on their ballot is the Safe Roads Amendment, a referendum to create a “lockbox” to protect transportation funding. In effect, any fee or tax we pay related to transportation, such as the state motor fuel tax drivers pay at the pump, would be dedicated to their intended purpose: transportation improvements. Sounds like a no-brainer, but with all the budget games our politicians play, it’s actually a restriction that we need to put in writing.

Illinois needs to get its fiscal house in order, so that critical needs such as education, services for the poor and, yes, infrastructure, don’t find themselves fighting for the same crumbs. Last year, lawmakers plucked $478 million from various road, transit and rail funds to fill a hole in the general fund. Tricks like this won’t put us on the path toward a solution. Instead, it allows us to continue to be in denial about the scope of our budget mess and the unpleasant (but necessary) solutions.

Our state’s roads, rails, bridges, sidewalks and bike paths are suffering from a chronic lack of investment. Today, one out of five miles of state roads are in poor shape. If our funding situation doesn’t change, that figure will double in five years. The condition and pace of decline of our transit assets—tracks, trains, buses—is similar. To reverse these trends and get our transportation infrastructure in good shape again, Illinois needs to invest an additional $43 billion over the next ten years.

As we work to get our fiscal house in order, we cannot let our literal house—the infrastructure all of us rely upon daily—fall apart. Children cannot get to school, the elderly cannot get to doctor’s appointments and low-income people cannot access services without reliable roads and public transit.

Consider how important reliable transportation is to a healthy business climate. Because of our central location in the country, many routes converge in Illinois. This has made our state an attractive place to locate a business, whether that business deals with logistics and deliveries, or simply wants to be accessible to customers and employees. But as our roads, rails and bridges crumble, Illinois looks less attractive to current and future employers, and we risk squandering this advantage. When that happens, we lose the tax revenue those businesses generate—which in turn support vital services.

It’s notable that the Safe Roads Amendment will also cover the funding we use to improve transit, biking and walking infrastructure. That’s important, because these funds are often the first legislators eye when looking to plug holes elsewhere. Remember threats of Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) “doomsday” years ago? Since then, steady budgets have enabled CTA to build new stations and significantly improve rail and bus service. That momentum needs to continue, and the Safe Roads Amendment would help.

There are other questions about what the amendment might affect. Comprehensive regional planning, for one, is critical to transportation, and will continue to be funded. You don’t want to load up the constitution with specific line-items, so details like this will be elaborated in implementing legislation.

As a state and people, we face difficult decisions on many fronts. One thing we must do is make a significant investment in our transportation network. It’s hard to ask voters to make that investment, though, without the assurance that the money will actually be spent on transportation. Vote “yes”—at the very top of your ballot—for the Safe Roads Amendment and establish the trust we need to start fixing our state’s mess.

This blog appeared in the opinion section of Crain's Chicago Business on October 25, 2016.

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