EDITORIAL: That scary crack on Lake Shore Drive? The price of years of neglect

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When your roof is leaking, that’s no the time to be thinking about a room addition.

In the same way, the Illinois General Assembly this spring should focus on repairing our state’s crumbling infrastructure before dreaming up new capital spending projects.

In January, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave Illinois a grade of “D” for its roads and a grade of “D” for its public transit systems. It ranked roads in Illinois as third worst in the nation for traffic delays, excess fuel consumed, truck congestion cost and total congestion cost.

Meanwhile, the Regional Transportation Authority says it will need $37.7 billion over 10 years just to get its tracks, bridges, signals, trains and buses back to a state of good repair.

The Illinois Legislature hasn’t put together a capital bill for 10 years to improve the state’s infrastructure. An effort to do that pretty much grounded to a halt five years ago because new sources of funding, such as the video gambling tax, failed to come close to achieving projected revenues.

As a result, our state’s roads, bridges and transit systems are slipping into a state of dangerous and ultimately more costly disrepair.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker says he and the Legislature will come up with a capital bill, but he has declined so far to say how big it will be or where the money will come from.

“We’ll be working on that this spring,” he told the Sun-Times Editorial Board last week.

We’re hoping to see a capital bill big enough to make substantial process in repairing the state’s transit infrastructure, supported by a sensible and sustainable revenue source.

If you drive Illinois roads or ride the trains, evidence of the need for upgrades and repairs is hard to miss.

RTA Chairman Kirk Dillard says the RTA used to lead the nation in fewest mechanical breakdowns per mile, but now has fallen to third place. That’s not terrible, but a move in the wrong direction.

“We used to be tops,” Dillard said, “and we ought to be tops.”

DePaul University Professor Joseph P. Schwieterman, president of the Chicago Chapter of the Transportation Research Forum, says the many rusting viaducts in the Chicago area are “a poster child of neglect” and some streets in Chicago “are bordering on embarrassing to the city.”

Elsewhere, 488 of Metra’s bridges are more than 100 years old, including some still made of timber. Lake Shore Drive had to be shut down in early February because of a crack in a support beam. Had a worker with a good eye not spotted the crack, people could have been killed.

Legislators in Springfield, both Democrats and Republicans, love to stress that Illinois must do what’s necessary to remain competitive with neighboring states. So consider this:

In 2017 in Indiana, Gov. Eric Holcomb approved a 10-cent-per gallon hike in the state’s gasoline tax to pay for infrastructure repairs and construction, and another penny per gallon was added last year. In 2015 in Iowa, Gov. Terry Branstad signed legislation to raise the gasoline tax a dime per gallon. Currently in Ohio, Gov. Mike DeWine is proposing an 18-cents-per-gallon increase. In Michigan, a bipartisan group of former legislative leaders has called for a gasoline tax hike of 47 cents a gallon — to pay for infrastructure — over nine years. And Wisconsin’s new governor, Tony Evers, has signaled that he favors a gasoline tax hike there for pay for infrastructure.

Meanwhile, the buying power of Illinois’ motor fuel tax is about half of what it was, in real dollars, when James R. Thompson was governor.

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The Metropolitan Planning Council says the Chicago area and Illinois as a whole are among the nation’s slowest growing regions and states because of, in part, a chronic neglect of transportation systems.

Typically, capital bills are bipartisan, and lawmakers push for projects in their districts. This time around, the MPC is urging the Legislature to do a better job of eschewing political considerations. The MPC wants Illinois to use objective “performance metrics” to evaluate the relative worth of proposed infrastructure projects, as some other states do.

“We can’t afford bad ideas,” MPC President MarySue Barrett says.

And Illinois can’t afford to keep putting off truly essential repairs.

When the roof leaks, you fix it, or everything just gets worse.

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February 28, 2019 at 07:04PM

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