State's highway system wearing out fast

State's highway system wearing out fast

By Jim Nowlan

Illinois' transportation infrastructure — highways, interstates, mass transit, rail freight — is wearing out fast, yet state policymakers have no long-term plan for addressing the biggest asset the state has going for it.

Concrete is a dry topic (no sex scandals here), yet stick with me, please, for the issue is critical to the state's economic future.

We have arguably the richest network of arterial interstate highways in the nation. At 2,300 miles, we have more interstate miles than any states but California and Texas.

Chicagoland is the rail hub of the nation, as upwards of half of all intermodal freight movement in the nation flows through the Chicago region, and O'Hare continues to be one of the world's workhorse airports.

And of course the rich transportation infrastructure combines effectively with our location in the center of the country.

But few seem to care, as the infrastructure deteriorates badly.

"Bad" state highway miles are expected to increase from 2,000 last year to 5,000 (out of 16,000 total miles) in 2018. Much of the interstate system has reached its 50-year design life, which means that extremely expensive rebuilding rather than simple repaving is going to be required.

The mass transit system in metropolitan Chicago, which provides 2 million rides on a typical weekday, is rickety. Congestion chokes the freight railroads. It takes trains almost as long to get through Chicagoland as it does to travel from California to Chicago.

Deferring highway maintenance and repair is costly. According to the national association of state highway officials, $1 spent on repairs while a road is in fair condition can prevent costs of $6-$14 to rebuild the same highway once it has deteriorated.

Yet the 19-cent-a gallon state gas tax hasn't been raised since 1990, and its yield is declining, as drivers use fewer gallons in their fuel-efficient and hybrid cars.

State policymakers lurch from five-year plans to no plans for several years to yet another five-year plan. The last capital construction plan ends in 2014. The plan has been backed by uncertain tax revenue from video poker, yet another new gaming program in Illinois, one that has been rejected by Chicago and many localities.

Maybe because highways aren't sexy, they appear to get little attention from policymakers. If we lose our edge in transportation, the state's sluggish economic growth will suffer even more.

We also need new approaches to funding the needed construction. The tax on gallons of fuel used is outdated, but will have to be continued into the near future. The tax should at least be adjusted for inflation.

The state should also calibrate motor vehicle registration fees to the value of the vehicle, which generally relates to the weight of the auto.

A business group called the Transportation for Illinois Coalition, which includes the Illinois Chamber of Commerce, has proposed that the 19-cent per gallon motor fuel tax be swapped for a tax of about 12 percent on the price of motor fuel.

The tax swap would add about $1 billion a year to the present $2.7 billion transportation budget.

The problem with such a tax is that fuel prices are highly volatile and have ranged from less than a buck a gallon to more than $4 over the past decade.

Another approach, used at present on our toll roads, is to charge per vehicle mile traveled. I have a transponder on my windshield, and when I pass under a toll highway monitor I am automatically charged so much from my tollway account for that stretch of road.

This is the future of transportation revenue collection, according to Randy Blankenhorn, executive director of the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning.

A few years ago, Oregon conducted a trial of using global positioning satellites to collect information from the travel of each vehicle, and the trial showed it could be done — and without compromising one's privacy (as if we have any privacy left, which is fodder for another column).

Illinois policymakers need to focus on our great infrastructure advantage, develop long-range plans for maintaining it, and find different ways of financing this expensive function of government.

Jim Nowlan is a member of the Executive Ethics Commission in Illinois. He is a retired senior fellow with the University of Illinois Institute of Government and Public Affairs and a former president of the Taxpayers' Federation of Illinois. A former Illinois legislator and aide to three unindicted governors, he is the lead author of "Illinois Politics: A Citizen's Guide" (University of Illinois Press, 2010). He can be contacted at

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dw wrote on June 24, 2013 at 1:06 am

Tax per vehicle mile traveled, with a damage multiplier (ESAL - equivalent single axle load):  A motorcycle should not pay the same tax per mile of an 18-wheeler:

Roadwear is caused by heavy loads on few axles:  most toll roads charge by the axle:  more axles used on heavy loads actually cause less roadwear, but get charged more.  Backasward.  Passenger vehicles, motorcycles, electric vehicles are insignificant compared to the heavy weight vehicles. Typical adjusted ESAL values for an 18 wheeler is 820 to almost 3,000 times more damage per mile than a passenger vehicle (slide 14, depending on axle count/configuration. This is what the first world nations do (mileage X ESAL class).

Get the taxing fair based on road damage that the vehicle causes and you will encourage much more frieght by rail, and get a lot less road damage as a result.

FRO wrote on June 24, 2013 at 10:06 am

Why raise the gas tax?  Illinois is just going to spend that money elsewhere, just like they always do. If all of the projected income from the gas tax were going to the correct fund, there would be no need to raise the gas tax, because there is already enough money going to that fund, it is just being robbed for another fund.( pension?)  Typical Illinois.  We are out of money.  Stop trying to raise taxes due to the inadequate funds that are being robbed for another fund.  FIRE THEM ALL AND START OVER.  RECALL  RECALL  Let the revolution begin.

Sid Saltfork wrote on June 24, 2013 at 1:06 pm

Heck yes; just steal the retired public service employees pensions, and pave the roads.  Too bad that Bill Cellini, past President of the Illinois Asphalt Association, is serving time for corruption.  Bill would be out there preaching for the need to steal from the pensions to pave the roads.

The legislators, and governor would have to pass legislation for a Recall Amendment.  It is doubtful that would happen.  However, "Let the revolution begin" is still an attractive alternative.

billbtri5 wrote on June 24, 2013 at 8:06 pm

Illinois has been raiding the gas tax for other purposes for years , and that includes both sides of the must not be "fun" in government to try to save money and do the basic things government is suppossed to do like public safety and stuff like  that.  meantime, publications like yours will not give an alternative candidate any serious coverage in favor of who ever the 2 parties dig up, who are   "bought and paid for"...