Quinn Borrows $1.1 Billion to Keep IDOT’s Steamrollers Going

Governor Quinn Signs $1.1 Billion   Capital Construction Bill

Governor Pat Quinn signs the bill in front of workers at the Circle Interchange construction site today. Photo: IDOT

Governor Pat Quinn signed two bills today that allow the state to issue $1.1 billion in general obligation bonds to spend on highway resurfacing, widening, and bridge repair. The bills explicitly exclude transit from the new funds, and while they don’t seem to exclude bike lanes, trails, or sidewalks, all of the funds are already obligated to car-centric road projects [PDF].

Erica Borggren, acting secretary for the Illinois Department of Transportation, said in a press release, “This construction program is the shot in the arm that our transportation system and our economy needs.”

What the economy and our transportation system also need is an efficient and sustainable way for users to pay the system’s ongoing costs — rather than a stopgap that socks future taxpayers, whether transit riders or pedestrians or drivers, with big loan payments. Keep in mind that today, Illinois has the country’s worst credit rating, and thus pays the highest interest rate of any state — 42 percent more interest than usual.

Springfield’s State Journal-Register reported that “the plan got overwhelming support in the final days of the legislative session, though some lawmakers were concerned that they didn’t have enough time to study where the money would go.” The answer, as with most anything related to IDOT spending, is “overwhelmingly Downstate.”

Just over four percent of the funds will be spent in Chicago, home to 22 percent of the state’s population. Most of that will go to reconstruct and replace the bridges and viaducts on the Stevenson Expressway (I-55), between the Dan Ryan Expressway (I-94) and South Lake Shore Drive. $700,000 will be spent to resurface 0.6 miles of South Michigan Avenue in Washington Park.

Just under 37 percent of the funds will be spent in the six-county Chicagoland area, and the majority of that will go to exurbs and rural areas. This might prove convenient for Quinn during an election year, especially given the dwindling fund balance in his signature “Illinois Jobs Now!” program. The program has just $115 million left to spend, according to IDOT spokesperson Paris Ervin.

McCormick Place West

I-55, between I-90/I-94 and Lake Shore Drive (shown here) will see bridge repairs, resurfacing, and new lighting and surveillance. Photo: Eric Rogers

It’s unclear if federal matching funds will be part of this package. The governor’s office tends to highlight the inclusion of federal funds — which are similarly problematic, since those funds increasingly come from general revenues instead of user fees.

While it’s true that Illinois (like most states) is playing catch-up with its road maintenance needs, transit, bicycling, and pedestrian infrastructure projects ultimately provide a higher economic return than road expansion. They provide more jobs per dollar invested, and decrease households’ annual transportation expenses.

The next Illinois governor, which could easily be Quinn again, must work with the General Assembly to find a more sustainable – and cheaper – revenue source for transportation projects. Their options include increasing the gas tax with automatic, future increases tied to inflation, tolling existing highways, or something else entirely.