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Civic group: Boost gas tax for transportation

By Richard Wronski

An influential Chicago think tank/planning organization is urging the state’s gas tax be increased by 30 cents per gallon. Here are four reasons why:

  • Experts say Illinois needs to invest $43 billion over 10 years to improve roads, bridges and rail lines and tackle a maintenance backlog.
  • Estimates say motorists are already wasting more than that amount on vehicle repairs due to poor roads; time lost in congestion; and loss of population and jobs to neighboring states.
  • The state’s gas tax, currently at 19 cents per gallon, hasn’t been raised in 25 years.
  • The gas tax hike, along with an accompanying 50 percent increase in vehicle registration fees, would cost the average person $12.25 a month, or $147 a year. That’s about one  lunch tab a month or a Netflix charge, the argument goes.

The recommendation to begin “an honest conversation” on hiking the gas tax came Monday from the Metropolitan Planning Council, an independent, bipartisan, nonprofit civic group. MPC’s board consists of many movers and shakers from Chicago banks and businesses.

MPC issued a detailed analysis (http://metroplanning.org/transportation) of its proposal, which it said it compiled after a year’s worth of discussions with transportation officials and other experts.

It’s not the first call for an increase in the state’s gas tax to pay for transportation needs, either by the MPC or others. Just over a year ago, the Transportation for Illinois Coalition, an aggregation of interest groups ranging from labor unions to truckers to local chambers of commerce, urged an unspecified increase in the gas tax along with a variety of other revenue sources.

The Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, which oversees the region’s land use and transportation planning, supports an eight-cent per gallon gas tax increase, and indexing it to inflation.

Last year, some state legislators floated a 13-cent increase, but also proposed simultaneously eliminating the 15-cent sales tax also imposed on gasoline purchases.

But the MPC’s analysis recommends the biggest increase yet. MPC Senior Fellow Jim Reilly outlined the proposal at a City Club of Chicago luncheon.

In addition to Illinois’ budget and pension crises, the state faces a “third deficit” regarding transportation, said Reilly, former head of the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority, which owns McCormick Place and Navy Pier, and former chairman of the Regional Transportation Authority.

“Everyone knows Illinois is a fiscal wreck, but not everyone knows Illinois is becoming a physical wreck,” Reilly said. To illustrate his point, Reilly pointed to a photo of a Metra switching station which dates back to 1932.

The RTA estimates that the CTA, Metra and Pace have a $20 billion backlog of unmet infrastructure, equipment, and rehabilitation needs. Meanwhile, one in five Illinois highways is in bad shape, Reilly said.

The Illinois Department of Transportation’s multiyear highway improvement plan unveiled in October echoed a pattern of shrinking spending on roads and bridges. IDOT officials warned about “a rapid deterioration in the overall condition of Illinois infrastructure due to a lack of sustainable investment.”

The MPC’s analysis said meeting Illinois’ transportation deficit requires an investment of $43 billion over 10 years, or an average of $4.3 billion each year for 10 years. “That’s less than we’re already wasting on extra repairs to vehicles as a result of poor road conditions, time lost to congestion and delays, and loss of jobs and investment to neighboring states. Rebuilding our infrastructure will cost less than continuing to suffer,” MPC said.

The tax and registration fees should be indexed to the consumer price index to keep pace with inflation, MPC said. Passenger car registrations now cost $101 a year.

The MPC also recommended the state constitution be amended to create a transportation trust fund to protect this revenue. To mitigate the effect of these increases on lower- and middle-income Illinoisans, the state earned income tax credit should double to 20 percent of the federal amount.

In the long term, MPC said the state should consider shifting toward a user fee that is not tied to fuel purchases, a vehicle miles traveled (VMT) fee.

The MPC’s analysis comes just as Chicagoans are getting happily accustomed to spending around $2 per gallon of gasoline. Experts acknowledge that raising the price of gasoline will be a tough sell, but the MPC says the cost of doing nothing will be higher in the long run.

“You can’t name anything that costs the same that it did in 1991,” Reilly said. “Why should the gas tax be different?”

A gas tax increase would have to be approved by the General Assembly and signed by Gov. Bruce Rauner, and Springfield is already deadlocked over the state budget and pensions. The MPC’s call did not prompt a comment from either House Speaker Michael Madigan or Rauner on Monday, according to their spokespersons.

Reilly, a former state legislator, could be one the plan’s best advocates. He has a reputation as a skilled negotiator and is wise to the ways of Springfield bargaining. As RTA chairman, he was instrumental in getting the General Assembly in 2008 and then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich to agree to a sales tax hike for mass transit.

The Illinois gas tax situation parallels the nation’s. The U.S. Highway Trust Fund, which finances the nation’s roads and mass transit, is funded by a federal gas tax which has been set at 18.4 cents per gallon since 1993. Numerous attempts in Congress to raise this tax have failed, and stopgap measures have kept the Highway Trust Fund barely solvent in recent years.

“Even as a nation, we want everything, but we don’t want to pay for anything,” Reilly said. “That attitude has to change.”

rwronski@chitranspo.com

 

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