“Hurricane” Kristen McQueary Strikes Again With Blustery Attack on Gas Tax Hike Proposal

Kristen McQueary. Photo: Sun-Times Media
Kristen McQueary. Photo: Sun-Times Media

Last month right-wing Chicago Tribune columnist Kristen McQueary, best known for being nearly universally condemned for writing that she wished that a Hurricane Katrina-like storm would devastate our city, warned readers about the coming regime change in Springfield. She predicted that under new governor J.B. Pritzker and the Democratic majority, the state will see multiple tax hikes, more outlets for gambling, legal marijuana (like that would be a bad thing?), and more borrowing. She chastised voters with the refrain, “This is the government you chose.

McQueary reserved particular scorn for Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel’s recent proposal to raise the state gas tax to properly fund transit and maintain the state’s roads, bridges, and other transportation infrastructure. Illinois’ gas tax has been stuck at a flat 19 cents a gallon since 1990 due to politicians’ perennial fears that raising it would result in a backlash at the polls. (Emanuel isn’t running for reelection.)

“But that doesn’t mean motorists have been getting a deal for the last 28 years,” McQueary wrote. She noted that Illinois drivers also pay the 18.4 cent federal gas tax (which has also been unchanged for decades), and Chicago motorists pay city and Cook County gas taxes, as well as a 10.25 percent sales tax.

It’s worth noting that gas prices have been falling across the nation lately, and even though gas is more expensive in Illinois than in neighboring states, it was a mere $2.46 a gallon on average in our state as of early December, following a 41-cent drop from the previous month. Moreover, car-friendly U.S. policies keep the national average price of gas to a mere fraction of that in many other countries, as you can see from the chart below. The consequence is poorly funded, crumbling infrastructure, not to mention much worse numbers for traffic fatalities, congestion, and air pollution compared to peer nations.

Gas prices in selected countries worldwide as of April 16, 2018 (in U.S. dollars per gallon.) Graph: Statista
Gas prices in selected countries worldwide as of April 16, 2018 (in U.S. dollars per gallon.) Graph: Statista

McQueary noted that Pritzker has indicated that he’s open to raising the gas tax in order to pay for a state infrastructure bill – Illinois hasn’t had one for almost a decade. “That’s an easy sell in Springfield,” McQueary wrote. “Essentially, it’s taking on more debt to pay for hundreds of bricks-and-mortar projects that hardly get vetted. Lawmakers love that… Don’t like paying more at the pump? Too bad. This is the government you chose.”

One valid argument that others have made against hiking the gas tax is that it would disproportionately impact poor and working-class Illinoisans. A possible strategy to reduce the sting of higher prices would be to pair the gas tax increase with legislation to switch the state income tax from a flat rate to a graduated system, where the wealthy pay a higher tax rate, something Pritzker, a billionaire, has voiced support for. Another idea would be to raise the Illinois minimum wage to a living wage of $15 an hour. Admittedly, passing either of these laws would involve non-trivial political battles. But with the Democrats in control again, the time is ripe to take action on these important equity initiatives.

It’s also important to remember that if we don’t raise the gas tax and stick with the status quo of inadequately funded, infrequent and unreliable transit service in the interest of cheap gas, that disproportionately hurts people who can’t afford to own a car or are unable to drive. That’s way more regressive than making gas somewhat more expensive for those who drive.

I checked in with local transportation advocacy organizations for their take on McQueary’s op-ed. Metropolitan Planning Council transportation director Audrey Wennink said she agreed with the columnist that Illinois should not take on more debt to pay for hundreds of projects that hardly get vetted. But she added that raising the state gas tax makes sense.

“The conversation in Illinois must be about sustainable transportation funding sources, transparency and getting the most return on every tax dollar,” Wennink said. “Illinois residents’ quality of life is suffering from lack of investment. The Metropolitan Planning Council’s #BustedCommute social media campaign over the past year is filled with stories of Illinois residents dealing with daily frustrations from poorly maintained transit, bike lanes, sidewalks, roads, and bridges. Since our state motor fuel tax has not been indexed to inflation and has steadily lost purchasing power over nearly 30 years, we need to take action, like most states have done in recent years.”

Wennink added that we need to make sure that funding is sustainable, meaning that dependable revenue comes in every year that allows us to plan and pay as we go. “But any increased revenue for transportation also must be accompanied by policy changes to ensure transparent use of transportation funds,” she said. “This approach is called performance-based planning. It means that every project is fully vetted and compared to other options so our investments move the most people quickly and safely.”

For example, if we took this more holistic approach, the state would likely abandon the Illinois Department of Transportation’s current plan to widen Chicago-area expressways in a futile attempt to reduce congestion. Instead, decision-makers might choose alternatives to highway expansion like beefing up transit service and transportation demand management.

Active Transportation Alliance director Ron Burke agreed that a state gas tax hike would be an appropriate way to fund long-overdue updates and upgrades to Illinois’ transportation network. “Our Illinois Sustainable Transportation Platform calls for a sustainable revenue source — of which gas tax is likely part — to fund improvements to the state’s transportation infrastructure,” he said. “We’re calling for at least 40 percent of transportation capital spending in any revenue bill to go towards public transit projects. We’re also looking to pass a bill next session to establish an Illinois Bike Walk Fund where two percent of state transportation capital spending annually would go towards biking and walking projects.”

McQueary’s recent column certainly isn’t as outrageous as her previous piece that wished that a storm with high winds would ravage Chicago. But her argument that the long-delayed increase in the state gas would be an unjust burden on drivers is a bunch of hot air.

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    She pretty much epitomizes white privilege. Sometimes I read her column just to taste my own barf.

  • Broseph Stalin

    Isn’t gas a relatively minor expense for most drivers? I’m dropping over a thousand this month on car payments, insurance, license, garage, etc.

  • Jeremy
  • Kelly Pierce

    Kristen McQueary acts like a conservative on taxes but not
    on spending, refusing to argue that state services more closely resemble that
    of Indiana, Kentucky and Missouri to limit spending and have a balanced budget.
    The issue is that Illinois has the highest state and local tax burden of any
    state, based on an analysis from Wallet Hub. In real dollar terms though, the state
    gas tax will still be less on a household that drives minimally with a high efficiency
    vehicle than the more than $7 Chicago charges for each line of cell phone service.

  • jcwconsult

    Fuel taxes are the fairest user-fees way to fund the roads. They are proportional to use, encourage the use of fuel efficient vehicles, and cost less than 1% of the revenue to collect. Our roads would be in a LOT better shape nationwide if Congress had not refused to raise the federal fuel taxes for 25 years. The difference in road quality in Europe with gas prices at $5 to $7 per US gallon are enlightening.
    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  • Carter O’Brien

    Does your association have concerns about the impact of EVs? Because I agree that fuel prices/taxes in general are encouraging that shift, but I have heard economists and budget officials express reservations about what happens in 5 – 10 years when the fuel taxes drop, as road infrastructure needs are obviously still going to continue.

  • jcwconsult

    It is necessary to have EVs pay a “fuel tax equivalent”. I believe that all EV charging stations at home and all other places should be on separate meters with a “fuel tax” portion built into the per-kw-hour charge.

    What I wonder more about with EVs is the seeming lack of plans for a massive increase in the grid to accommodate a large increase in demand. In addition, many areas have coal fired plants making the electricity – which negates a serious part of any environmental benefit.

    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  • johnaustingreenfield

    Wow, another example of the guy from the National Motorists Association being not wrong.

    There are also proposals for implementing a Vehicle Miles Traveled tax, using GPS to monitor how many miles drivers travel and charging them accordingly for wear-and-tear on roads, which will help keep transportation revenue from falling as more people switch from gas-powered vehicles to electric ones.

  • planetshwoop

    I don’t think it’s too much to ask for some concessions as part of any tax increase. I mean, yes, the tax is too darn low, and there is a serious backlog of stuff that should be paid for by charging motorists more. But we might have more success in enacting it if it were coupled with RTA reform. By showing that we could reduce a few board positions btwn CTA, PACE, Metra, RTA, in exchange for a higher gas tax, it would help show there is some effort to be considerate of how to both cut extra waste and raise taxes.

    What I wouldn’t do – and what people will expect, no doubt – is “lock-box” any of the extra money for surface street improvements. Yes, the roads are bad, but I think promising too much money for fixes just causes resurfacing costs to rise because they know the money will be there.

  • jcwconsult

    I prefer the tax on the electric meters. It likely costs less in the long run and does not involve collecting a database of all a person’s travels which could be hacked and/or sold for criminal or commercial purposes – without permission.
    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  • LinuxGuy

    The money gets diverted to non-driving uses.

  • LinuxGuy

    What happens when the power goes out or there is an evacuation?

  • Carter O’Brien

    The good news is many people have been thinking about both of those challenges. For the grid, you charge at night when there is generally surplus electricity as people are asleep and using much less of it. For the power that supplies the grid, solar and wind have hit parity with coal (and then some if you also include externalities such as pollution, air quality, medical costs, etc.). This looks like a solid analysis: https://www.wired.com/story/electric-cars-impact-electric-grid/

  • Carter O’Brien
  • Sincerely

    Congestion pricing is also fair, though provisions probably should be made to make sure low income folks aren’t overburdened (using the fees to improve transit is probably the best way of doing this). Accurate road pricing necessarily has a time element, since the marginal cost of car use at 5 PM is very different from the cost at 2 AM.

    A gallon of gas expended to get someone to the suburban rail station has far fewer externalities than a gallon of gas combusted by an SUV in downtown gridlock. Fair fees should reflect that reality.

  • jcwconsult

    Congestion pricing is also fair, though provisions probably should be made to make sure low income folks aren’t overburdened (using the fees to improve transit is probably the best way of doing this).

    That is of no help to commuters without logical transit options that would take less than 1.25 to 1.5 times the commuting time of driving. Personal and family time has a high value to most people – a critical element that transit supporters often do not respect very much.

    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  • Bernard Finucane

    The solution to bad roads is to stop spending money on increasing capacity. I think that there should be higher taxes to mitigate the negative externalities of roads, however. In particular, the highways in and around Chicago need sound barriers, and should be reconfigured to waste less space.

  • Bernard Finucane

    Instead of this:

    Roads should look like this:

    There should be a vertical, inward sloping sound barrier as near to the road as possible. The remaining space would be behind the barrier and could be used as a park accessible on foot.

  • Bernard Finucane

    This is that green slope viewed from the outside (I90 at W 31st St.):

    It’s pretty horrible, with no sidewalk, an unattractive fence, and very loud noises from the highway. Needless to say land prices are low there. It is an unpleasant place to be.

    The horizontal distance between the fence and shoulder of the highway is about 60 feet. If there was a high sound barrier at the shoulder, and the cut behind it was filled, there could be a 60 foot wide park here instead, with room for pedestrian and bike traffic as well as other amenities. Furthermore the noise pollution could be significantly reduced, making the city much more livable.

  • Sincerely

    I value personal and family time quite a bit. That’s part of why I support transit, so people don’t have to be stuck in traffic if they don’t want to be.

    A fact that transit detractors seem to often overlook is that when urban infrastructure is designed for efficiency, transit and active transportation is often nearly as fast (or faster) than car travel. Automobiles are fast and convenient when their use is massively subsidized to the detriment of other options.

  • jcwconsult

    IF the traveler’s home and destination are both VERY close to the transit stations AND the transit vehicles operate VERY frequently, transit superiority in the door to door times might in some cases be true – particularly in much of NYC and perhaps some deep downtown areas of other metroplexes.

    I don’t detract from transit, I just point out that it is very rarely faster door to door. If the average door to door commute by car is about 25 minutes but transit takes perhaps 40 minutes with more walking and exposure to four season weather, I know why most people drive.

    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  • Sincerely

    You keep getting causality confused. Even with the massive cost to taxpayers to make driving convenient in my city, the average speed on many arterials during peak times is 6-9 mph. A beginning cyclist can beat that easily, and buses with dedicated lanes could move far more people at several times the speed.

    The reason why most people drive is because automobiles are heavily subsidized and incentivized at every level of government. Users generally don’t pay the real costs themselves and travel times reflect the amount of infrastructure investment.

    Of course the facts don’t matter to you, since your for-profit lobbyist group is only interested in keeping the costs to automobile users artificially low and helping lawbreaking motorists avoid accountability.

  • jcwconsult

    In short commutes from within the central area, yes. For a VERY large percentage of commuters coming from further away, NO.

    A majority of people drive because door to door it is often faster, it is private & quiet, carrying things is far more convenient, it requires far less exposure to poor weather, etc.

    And, as noted many times before, any profits our technically for-profit corporation makes are plowed back into our efforts – to support the freedom of travel most people find invaluable.

    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association