What Will Illinois’ Blue Wave Mean for Sustainable Transportation?

Lieutenant governor-elect Juliana Stratton and J.B. Pritzker with their campaign bus.
Lieutenant governor-elect Juliana Stratton and J.B. Pritzker with their campaign bus.

Regardless of how you feel about a billionaire clobbering a near-billionaire at the polls, J.B. Pritzker’s victory over incumbent governor Bruce Rauner, and the Democratic party’s strengthened majority in Springfield in the wake of yesterday’s election could be good news for biking, walking, and transit. Today I checked in with local advocates and experts to get their take on what Illinois’ blue wave could mean for the future of sustainable transportation in our state.

Pritzker filled out the Active Transportation Alliance’s candidate questionnaire back in the primary season and voiced support for improving conditions for non-car modes. Some of the initiatives he checked “yes” on included raising state transit funding to pre-2017 levels; building more and better biking and walking facilities on state routes; and creating dedicated transit lanes on North Lake Shore Drive. And while Rauner proposed widening expressways in the Chicago region, Pritzker said he supports state policies that would improve transit and implement rush-hour demand management strategies as an alternative to costly road expansion.

Active Trans director Ron Burke expressed optimism that the new leadership in the governor’s mansion could lead to more equitable and equitable state transportation policies. “Governor-elect Pritzker and the new Illinois General Assembly have a chance to reverse years of neglect of the state’s transportation network by passing an infrastructure bill funded with sustainable and reliable revenue,” he said via email. “A bill with at least 40 percent of transportation spending on public transit projects and at least $50 million (2 percent of the Illinois Department of Transportation budget) for biking and walking would increase mobility and opportunity for all residents… State leaders must recognize that building safer, healthier and more sustainable communities requires upgrading the transportation system, especially in the highest need areas across Illinois.”

Likewise, Metropolitan Planning Council director of transportation Audrey Wennink said the regime change could lead to lawmakers taking long-overdue action to improve the state transportation network. “Governor-elect Pritzker seems to understands the urgent need for increased transportation infrastructure investment and we are hopeful he and the legislature will take action,” she wrote. “This is an opportunity to develop sustainable revenue sources based on user fees that will provide funding on an ongoing basis, not accruing more debt through infrequent bonding programs.”

Wennink added that the incoming administration should prioritize funding multimodal transportation infrastructure including transit, intercity rail, biking, and walking as well as roads. “Younger generations –especially the tech sector — have clearly signaled that they want transportation choices,” she said. “This is also a critical opportunity to upgrade Illinois’ processes so data-driven decisions are made and transparency on transportation investment priorities is improved. More transportation investments are desperately needed and this is our chance to do this the right way.”

Steve Schlickman, a transportation consultant and former head of UIC’s Urban Transportation Institute, also expressed optimism that the new blood in Springfield could lead to bold action to address infrastructure needs. “It is clear that there are tremendous unfunded capital needs for highways and mass transit in our state, particularly in the Chicago area,” he said via email. “We need a capital funding initiative that is greater than anything we have seen before. The governor-elect needs to take the leadership role in making the case for that.”

Schlickman argued that new revenue sources will be needed to pay for transportation infrastructure, and raising the gas tax, which has been stuck at 19 cents a gallon for almost three decades, is the best option. “[Pritzker] needs to make it clear to people what they will get in return. If he does that effectively it should induce the legislature to have the political will to pass the tax increase he proposals.”

So here’s hoping that the new administration takes the bull by the horns when it comes to transportation infrastructure funding, and earmarking a fair share of those funds to sustainable modes.

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  • ardecila

    I’m fairly confident Pritzker and the new Dem supermajority will get a capital bill passed, maybe even a new source of revenue, but 40% on transit ain’t gonna happen.

    If Pritzker was gonna make a big commitment to transit and away from roads, he would have mentioned it on the campaign trail. You can’t use crumbling roads and bridges as a talking point, and then majorly cut the percentage of spending going to roads.

  • ardecila

    I do expect some of the Amtrak expansions to get dusted off, though. We should be able to get new service to Rockford and Quad Cities in Pritzker’s first term, assuming they don’t have to go through yet another round of studies.

  • Jeremy
  • Obesa Adipose

    Um, different Pritzker.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    Yes, J.B. and Colonel Jennifer Pritzker are cousins. Jennifer has done some car-centric development projects in Rogers Park. On the other hand, she has biked in Critical Mass and donated $5,000 for an edition of Active Trans’ regional bike map.

  • Jeremy

    I am aware they are different.

  • neroden

    Quad Cities rail doesn’t require any studies; it’s fully approved and nothing has changed. Better yet, the part which requires negotiating with big railroad BNSF is all done. So are the detailed land surveys and environmental documentation and a lot of the engineering. It’s a matter of lining up the money and signing deals with little railroad Iowa Interstate, which has strong incentives to agree to anything. So mostly it’s a matter of spending the money and doing it.

    Rockford is in an early stage and basically nothing but a line on paper; we can hope that it gets started.

  • ardecila

    Ah, yeah. Quad Cities rail got a big grant under Obama to cover the bulk of the cost, and Rauner has just slow-walked it for the last four years over the local match and the operating cost.

    Rockford has no serious funding lined up, so that one needs a bigger commitment from the state. Good that they switched to the MD-W alignment, Metra is probably a better operating partner than any freight road despite its heavy schedule of commuter trains. Plus it will allow transfers to Metra at Elgin or Big Timber, which makes for a far more useful service than an express to Union Station.

  • rohmen

    Colonel Pritzker is also a life-long republican donor. JB and Colonel Pritzker are probably pretty far apart on most issues, not just sustainable transportation.

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