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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.

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