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Beyond Chicagoland

With No Risk of Voter Backlash, Emanuel Makes a Sensible Call for a State Gas Tax Hike

Emanuel speaks at a CTA press event in 2013. Photo: John Greenfield

One good thing about being a politician who’s not running for reelection is that you can call for sensible, but unpopular, policies without fear of a backlash at the polls. The Chicago Tribune’s Bill Ruthart reported today that Mayor Rahm Emanuel is calling for a 20 to 30 cent hike in the Illinois gas tax to fund a state transportation bill. Emanuel announced in September that he’d be stepping down this year, although I wouldn’t call him a lame duck since recent events at City Hall suggest he’s still got plenty of political pull.

Illinois’ gas tax has been stuck at 19 cents a gallon since 1990, which means that there has been less and less money each year for properly funding transit and fixing roads and bridges as the buying power of the tax revenue has decreased with inflation. Many Illinois politicians have acknowledged for years the state gas tax needs to be increased because our public transportation is sorely underfunded and our infrastructure is crumbling. But there hasn’t been much action on the issue in our state because U.S. drivers are accustomed to cheap gasoline, and raising the price of gasoline is often considered to be political suicide. (The federal gas tax has also been stuck at 18.4 cents a gallon since 1993.) Meanwhile, Illinois hasn’t passed a major infrastructure bill in almost a decade.

Emanuel announced his idea at a press conference today at City Hall, where representatives of the Metropolitan Mayor’s Caucus joined him, the Tribune reported. “Our state can’t wait any longer,” Emanuel said, adding that other Midwestern states have passed gas taxes to fund transportation bills.

The Tribune noted that governor-elect J.B. Pritzker has expressed interest in passing a state infrastructure bill but hasn’t discussed how he plans to fund it, so Emanuel’s announcement could help raise support for paying for the bill via gas tax revenue. The mayor told the paper in October, shortly after he announced he wasn’t seeking reelection, that he was in favor of raising the state gas tax. “If you want a transportation system that efficiently gets you from your work to home to be with your family and vice versa, we have to invest in the future and we have to have resources,” he said at the time. He also voiced support for implementing a vehicle-miles-traveled tax, so that revenue for transportation won’t plummet as more drivers switch to electric and hybrid vehicles.

It’s great that Emanuel currently feels free to speak his mind about raising the gas tax, because doing so would have multiple benefits for Illinoisans. Each year that Illinois hasn’t raised the gas tax has essentially made driving cheaper, encouraging more vehicle trips. Making driving somewhat more expensive would discourage unnecessary trips, which would lower the number of traffic crashes and reduce air pollution and traffic congestion. Meanwhile, adequately funding the CTA, Pace, and Metra so that service is more frequent and more reliable would make transit a more attractive option, which would boosting ridership and fare box revenue, creating a virtuous cycle.

Of course, any time you raise the tax on something that’s considered indispensible, the price hike disproportionate impacts lower-income people. To mitigate the regressive effects of the raising the gas tax, the Illinois Legislature should consider creating other tax rebates or incentives to soften the blow for folks below a certain income level.

But raising the state gas tax to fund transit and infrastructure is the responsible thing to do, and it’s about time that one of Illinois' top leaders spoke out on the subject.

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