By GRANT MORGAN
Capitol News Illinois
SPRINGFIELD — The Illinois Department of Transportation was one among a variety of related local and state groups to talk about its funding needs for Illinois’ next major capital bill, which some lawmakers say they want by the end of the legislative session.
These discussions took place in a House subcommittee on capital needs Thursday morning, one of many gatherings held recently where all industries relying on sound infrastructure in the nation’s central transportation hub could explain their requests to lawmakers.
While the assortment of statistics proving it varied, every group at the two-hour hearing agreed Illinois’ infrastructure is in poor condition and needs maintenance and improvements.
Far and away the largest funding requests were from IDOT, which Omer Osman, the acting state secretary of transportation, said needs $13 to 15 billion over the next 10 years for the maintenance of state roads and bridges, with an additional $30 billion for upgrades and improvements to aviation, public transit, freight and passenger rail and new highways.
But Todd Maisch, president and CEO of the Illinois Chamber of Commerce, said the state risks losing an entire construction season if it can’t get a capital bill approved long before the legislative session ends on May 31.
“IDOT can’t go out for project bids until they know exactly what they’ve got in a capital bill,” Maisch said. “If you get into May [without one], they’re not going to be able to put out project bids until June.”
Then, Maisch said, extra time would be needed for IDOT to follow the right procedures for planning, procurement and change orders. Meanwhile, contractors the state uses to complete projects couldn’t hire staff until they know what they need to do, and how much they’ll get for it.
“And if there’s an early fall,” Maisch said, “boom — you lost an entire season of construction.”
Springfield Republican Rep. Tim Butler, however, said it’s more important to “get it right” than to rush a capital bill through without knowing how the state will fund it.
“I think it’s certainly no issue figuring out what the needs are,” said Butler, who has become a leading legislative voice for Illinois’ next capital bill. “The tougher discussions are going to come when we talk about how we fund these things.”
Butler said, for that discussion, the governor’s office will have to get more involved in talks with the legislature.
One option much-discussed at Thursday’s hearing was increasing the state’s motor vehicle tax, which currently sits at its 1991 level of 19 cents per gallon. Revenue from this tax is devoted exclusively to road and bridge needs.
In the past four years, 27 states have increased their motor vehicle tax. Steve Hall, spokesman for the American Council of Engineering Companies, said Illinois needs to catch up to the “other states that are doing better.”
“Tax rates applied to fuel consumption are dwindling because of increased fuel efficiency,” Hall said at Thursday’s hearing. “Increasing user fees [the gas tax] are absolutely essential because funding streams are not keeping pace with inflation.”
Hall, however, was interrupted by Chair Luis Arroyo, a Democrat from Chicago, who said the committee needed to keep hearing about funding needs before it considered ways to pay for them.
“Other states have increased their gas tax, but that’s not popular [in Illinois] right now,” Arroyo said. “It’s probably not a bad idea, but this committee will make that decision when we start budgeting.”
Butler, on the other hand, said he believes the state can pull more money for roads and bridges out of the gas pump without actually raising taxes.
On top of the 19-cent gas tax, Illinois also charges a 6.25 percent sales tax on gasoline and diesel, the revenue from which goes into the state’s main checking account like every category of sales tax revenue.
But money in the General Revenue Fund is not exclusive to state infrastructure spending. To address this, Butler said he thinks the state should take the sales tax money from gasoline and put it into the same lock box that holds the gas tax revenues.
Regardless, the legislature is not done hearing every group’s funding needs for infrastructure upgrades and replacements. The House Appropriations-Capital committee has similar hearings scheduled till mid-April, while the Senate has its own round of hearings.
“I’d love to have [a capital bill] done by May, but knowing how things work around here, I’m kind of skeptical that will happen,” Butler said.