By JERRY NOWICKI
Capitol News Illinois
SPRINGFIELD – A high-profile Republican on Monday gave his support to an increase to the state’s gas tax during a meeting of a special Senate capital committee.
Ray LaHood, a Peoria Republican who served from 1995 to 2009 in Illinois’ 18th congressional district before serving as secretary of transportation under President Barack Obama, said an infrastructure bill is also a “jobs bill and an economic development bill.”
In his testimony at the Michael A. Bilandic Building in Chicago, LaHood sounded similar alarms to those who spoke at five previous meetings of the committee.
“My focus is on the fact that Illinois is one big pothole right now,” LaHood said. “We’ve had these brutal winters, and people are complaining about potholes. And I believe that if the General Assembly raised the gas tax and fixed up the roads and bridges, people would be very happy.”
The infrastructure shortfall is also a safety risk, many testified. Dave Bender, president and CEO of the American Council of Engineering Companies-Illinois, said 45 percent of the state’s bridges are at least 50 years old, and most have a life expectancy of just 50 to 60 years.
James Derwinski, executive director of Metra Rail, said half of the rail line’s bridges were installed more than 100 years ago, and the oldest Metra car in use today was built in 1953.
Bender said the state’s road and bridge infrastructure is in such bad shape because nearly 90 percent of it is federally funded, while the state chipped in just 4 percent in 2016. The federal contribution is in danger of shrinking, he said, if Illinois continues to fail to meet federal matching guidelines by billions of dollars.
LaHood said nearly 30 states have taken local action to raise their gas taxes in recent years, including several Republican-controlled states. He said Illinois has one of the lowest rates in the nation for a gas tax at a time when fuel purchases are shrinking due to an increase in fuel efficiency and electric vehicles.
The fact that the state has a “lock box” amendment for motor fuel tax which permits its use only for safety of roads and bridges is beneficial for the transparency of the process, LaHood said. He also said any legislation increasing the gas tax should include provisions to raise the gas tax along with the rate of inflation.
State Sen. Martin Sandoval, a Chicago Democrat and Transportation Committee chair, said his Senate Bill 103 includes such a provision. That bill would raise the gas tax from 19 cents to 38 cents, along with raising automobile registration fees, including those for electric cars.
Another bill, House Bill 3823 carried by Rep. Andre Thapedi (D-Chicago) and backed by the Illinois Chamber of Commerce, would increase the gas tax even further while phasing out the sales tax on motor fuel among other wide-ranging changes.
Sandoval said his bill has only one co-sponsor – another Democrat. LaHood and Tom Oakley, a former newspaper publisher in Quincy, told the committee they would help lobby for an infrastructure bill when the Legislature heads back to Springfield for the final legislative push Tuesday.
“What you have today, Mr. Chairman and members of the committee, are two Republicans from downstate Illinois who are promoting to fix up our infrastructure and raise the gas tax to do it,” LaHood said.
LaHood’s testimony was followed by eight panels of speakers requesting added infrastructure spending that would benefit their varying organizations, businesses, agencies and boards. Those representatives were from transportation agencies, port authorities, higher education institutions, environmental organizations, pedestrian and bicycling advocates and other groups.
Mary Sue Barrett of the Metropolitan Planning Council – an independent, nonprofit, nonpartisan organization focused on regional growth – said those debating infrastructure spending often ask the wrong questions.
“First, we have to ask what’s the cost of inaction,” she said.
LaHood said the cost is investment in Illinois.
“When companies look at Illinois to do business, they look at infrastructure first, and then a number of other things after that. Without good infrastructure, we are not going to be able to keep businesses and attract businesses,” LaHood said.