Sorry Tribune, the Transportation Lock Box Isn’t a Scam, It’s a Necessity

18th Street
We’re never going to get our infrastructure in a good state of repair if the Illinois Legislature keeps raiding transportation funding for other purposes. Photo: Eric Allix Rogers

When it comes to opinion pieces about transportation issues, the Chicago Tribune has been publishing some doozies this month. First, in the wake of four bike fatalities allegedly caused by reckless drivers, an editorial in the paper advised cyclists to ride more carefully. Next they ran an op-ed from noted anti-bike crank John McCarron bemoaning the fact that drivers are supposed to look for cyclists before turning to ensure they don’t kill anyone.

Those articles were wrongheaded, but last week the Tribune ran an editorial that could have a very concrete negative effect. They’re urging Illinoisans to vote against the proposed Safe Roads Constitutional Amendment, which will be on the November 8 ballot. The proposal would create a “lock box” for state transportation funding, making it illegal for politicians to raid Illinois transportation dollars to cover budget shortfalls.

The editorial has right-wing Trib columnist and McCarron’s fellow bike troll John Kass’ fingerprints all over it – it even refers to his audience as “little voters,” just as Kass tauntingly refers to Chicagoans who bicycle as “little bicycle people.” The piece makes the argument that the amendment, a fairly innocuous piece of legislation that would protect funding for transit, pedestrian, and bike projects as well as roads, is the product of an unholy alliance between politicians, the road lobby, and organized labor.

The article argues that the bill is a devilish scheme by lawmakers to ensure that highway projects remain a road to riches for the construction companies and union workers that build them. In return, the crooked politicians can count on campaign donations continuing to roll in. Channeling Blagojevic, the Trib writes:

They want you to enshrine in the Illinois Constitution a perpetual payday for their loyal donors in road-building and organized labor. You could say they’ve all got this thing — this proposed amendment — and for them it’s … golden!

The paper goes on to say that transportation funding has only been diverted to other purposes because elected officials or their constituents decided it was necessary. “Or, at least as likely, because they have no self-control [about] overspending.”

“The Tribune has been making its point that the legislation hasn’t been doing it’s job,” responded Metropolitan Planning Council senior fellow Jim Reilly. “That’s precisely why we need the constitutional amendment. The state hasn’t had an adequate transportation fund in the first place, particularly for transit.

“Our numbers suggest we need an additional $43 billion for our regional transportation system over the next ten years on top of the funding that we already have,” Reilly said. “And only a little of that is for new projects – most of that is to bring us up to a state of good repair on the transit systems and the road.”

Reilly argued that passing the amendment could help garner political support for raising the gas tax hike and other fees to fund transportation infrastructure. “Right now if people ask, ‘Can you be sure this will be used for that purpose,’ well, the answer is no,” he said.”

As for the Trib’s conspiracy theory that politicians are in cahoots with the road lobby? “Well, if that was the case, the legislature would provide adequate transportation funding in the first place,” Reilly said. “Nothing stops them from doing that now. But the road builders have had a lot of problems in the last few years due to inadequate funding, so that theory doesn’t seem to hold water.”

The Center for Neighborhood Technology’s Jacky Grimshaw says her group supports the lockbox. “We do not have enough transportation funds to provide the required maintenance, and reconstruction of our roads, bridges and transit lines,” she said. “Funds are being diverted to all kinds of non-road needs. The General Assmbly should address funding those needs as GAs in the past provided a funding stream for transportation, not rob transportation dollars to fund other needs like colleges and day care.”

The Active Transportation Alliance’s Kyle Whitehead said his organization is also in favor of the amendment. “We need to preserve state transportation revenue if we’re ever have a chance at cutting into our $31 billion state of good repair deficit for transit in the Chicago region, and expanding our network of safe biking and walking infrastructure,” he said. “We’ve long highlighted the vast funding disparity between road building and alternative transportation projects, and urge state leaders to grow investment in transit, biking and walking projects that are routinely shortchanged despite their proven health, safety and economic benefits.”

So there you have it. Remember to vote for the amendment on November 8, because having better-maintained transit on more routes would be… golden.

  • hakuna matata

    Enshrining spending priorities in a constitution is about the worst public policy that one could come up with, no matter the priority. See: public pensions.

    Politicians need flexibility to deal with issues of the day. See: public pension debts.

    IL has had plenty of money to spend on road projects, even since 2008. See: Eisenhower interchange, Adams toll road expansion, among others.

    Enshrining road building constraints (and it will be mostly roads, not trains or bike lanes) in the constituion is about as smart as enshrining the number of 3-part carbon forms or copies of Windows XP that the state must buy in said constitution.

    And, of course, the state is already in cahoots with the road lobby. Among others: see how many consultants are employed in “studies”, or how prevailing wage legistion inflate costs. The taxpayers could get a lot more for their money, even if it wouldn’t mean more jobs.

  • ardecila

    Would our transportation system be stronger with this amendment? Maybe. But ultimately this whole thing is a delusional response to shrinking transportation funding. It doesn’t address the reality that traditional funding sources like the gas tax are drying up, and doesn’t address the reality that new revenues either in the form of a higher gas tax or new kinds of taxes are needed.

    Also, transportation isn’t the only thing the state does. They provide all kinds of vital services, from healthcare to education to criminal justice to state parks. Is transportation more important than all of those things, that it deserves to be first in line for funding? I don’t believe it is.

  • tooter turtle

    I seriously doubt this amendment would preserve funding for public transit, cycling or walking. It would make more stroads, probably.

  • kastigar

    The Illinois constitution is bad enough, and additional fiddling with it might make it worse. Road funding shouldn’t be in the constitution. Pension limitations shouldn’t be in the constitution. Restriction on citizen initiates attempting to limit the legislature control or gerrymandered voting shouldn’t be in the constitution.

    This amendment will mostly benefit cars, cars, and more cars. Little benefit will be gained for pedestrians, public transit, or bicycles.

    The Center for Neighborhood Technology and the Active Transportation Alliance should not be supporting this; they’re going to lose a lot of support because of their stand on the issue. So will Streetsblog Chicago.

  • Randy Neufeld

    There was an interesting discussion yesterday at the CMAP Transportation Committee on the Lockbox amendment. Everyone there likes the concept. The question is whether it may cause problems because of the wording. For instance there is some language that allows for buildings for highway purposes but no parallel language for other modes. No one understands what the dedicated funding source for new modes of transport means. The kicker is that local governments could not use parking revenue for non-transportation purposes. So you can’t charge for parking to build a library, museum, or improve a business district. That might have a pretty big unintended impact.

  • neroden

    Local governments are generally funding streets out of property tax and sales tax (the general fund). If they dump the parking money in the streets fund, they can redirect general-fund money to useful stuff instead.

  • SP_Disqus

    The website set up to promote the amendment has some persuasive, easily digestible stats in support:

    – 4,200 Illinois bridges are in “poor condition”
    – 50% of Illinois roads are in “poor condition”
    – 6 billion in road money has been swept away in the last 10 years alone

    http://www.saferoadsamendment.com/

  • 1, 2, or 3 bridge collapses will change the whole picture, then who will be talking about bike lanes? Because that is exactly where we are heading.

  • FlamingoFresh

    Well even if it doesn’t directly address the ineffective gas tax that is currently present or new funding for transportation , one would think that you have to start some where. And this is where the city is choosing to start. Funding is something that has been a problem for a long time and it’d be foolish to think that things will change, however the city is making an attempt to make transportation a priority so wouldn’t it make sense that these additional sources of revenue and a rise in the gas tax will follow down the line. You’re clearly complaining that these traditional funding sources haven’t been addressed and should get looked at while saying at the same time transportation shouldn’t have priority over another governmental service. I think it’s vital for things like this to have priority and have budget protection from the other aspects of government.

    When you are limited to a certain amount of money and aren’t allowed to dip into another area for funding you are forced to be more creative and fiscally responsible with your money. Flexibility of spending is the last thing the State of Illinois need. They work with what they are dealt with and make the best of it and if it’s not enough, either find a new way to fund it or save on spending. Whether that is having lower cost projects or paying government representatives less. I thinks its abundantly clear that we are in a hole financially and that the transportation infrastructure is a resource that connects us all. If roads shut down and are no longer usable what are we going to do?

  • rivardau

    or tolls! Charge the users a “fare” to use a road, just like they are already charged for each use of a transit bus, train, airplane…

    transponders mean no more booths/barriers to slow traffic down, cause congestion, or backups and crashes.

    not a foreign concept, people!

  • ChicagoCyclist

    Very complicated issue (on the ‘surface’ it sounds good, but like “autonomous vehicles,” there is a LOT to consider/weigh in the balance), but one thing is for sure: Using a referendum on a popular ballot to decide an issue like this, and to amend a constitution, is unwise, unwise, unwise. Maybe especially in THIS crazy election. Fact is, the complexity / legal issues / ramifications are not clearly understood by those who proposed the referendum (road building association that wants their unionized members to benefit), let alone by anyone else. It may be a good idea to excise a malignant growth in a body, but to do so with an dull axe (and, you guessed it, end up killing the patient) is not a good way to go about such a surgery. Legislatures, executive branches, the judiciary, and yes, the “people” themselves too, need (not only to balance powers but also) to also navigate the ship of state TOGETHER and assiduously, carefully determine trade-offs and priorities among lots of goals, objectives, changing situations, power struggles. Illinois seems good at shooting herself in the foot, but let’s not do it again. I’ll say it again: budgeting by referendum ain’t smart.

  • kastigar

    Let’s reverse the amendment:: funding for roads, highways, bridges, and tunnels can only come from taxes on gasoline and not from the general funding of the state.

    If 100% of road projects would depend only on gasoline tax then the users of the roads would be paying for the roads.

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