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EDITORIAL: A message from the I-80 bridge — get out the repair tools, Illinois

Signs saying the I-80 bridgae is not safe. | FOX32 Chicago

A billboard purchased by IUOE Local 150 warns motorists that the I-80 bridge in Joliet is not safe. State officials say they're working on repair plans. | FOX32 Chicago

In what other state do highway billboards warn you to drive over a bridge at your own risk? We’re guessing it is not many.

But that’s what motorists on I-80 see as they cross the Des Plaines River in Joliet. A billboard on one side of the bridge says, “Cross Bridge at Your Own Risk.” A billboard for traffic going the opposite direction says, “Bridge ahead in critical condition.”

And you thought the unexplained whining sound from your alternator was bad.

We’re guessing those signs make motorists a bit jumpy, especially if they remember the I-35W Mississippi River bridge that collapsed in 2007 in Minneapolis, killing 13 people and injuring 145. Or the Lake Shore Drive bridge that had to be shut down in early February because of a crack in a support beam. That could have been a big disaster if no one had noticed the crack in time.

Meanwhile, 165 miles away in Springfield, lawmakers will debate a $2 billion-a-year Senate amendment that emerged last week to fix deteriorating roads, bridges and transit with a 19-cents-a-gallon increase in gasoline taxes, a doubling of license fees, an increase in registration fees for most vehicles from $98 to $148, and other fee increases.

We don’t know if the final capital plan will revise those tax-and-fee increases, but the I-80 bridge illustrates why something must be done.

The rotating message billboard ads are the part of an International Union of Operating Engineers Local 150 campaign to warn motorists of deteriorating road and bridge conditions, especially on the span over the Des Plaines River. The union has an ownership stake in the Chicago Sun-Times.

Joliet Mayor Bob O’Dekirk has threatened to post similar signs on streets approaching I-80 entrance ramps.

Meanwhile, the Illinois Department of Transportation says the bridge is safe for now, and the agency is planning to spend $5 million starting in April to fix problems found in inspections.

Inspections from last spring rated the spans in both directions “Intolerable – High Priority for Replacement” and the superstructure of the westbound span as “Critical Condition – May Require Closure.”

But $5 million won’t go far in a state where the American Society of Civil Engineers says motorists take nine million trips over 2,303 structurally deficient bridges every day.

Moreover, because Illinois has not had a capital construction plan in 10 years, the state is getting further and further behind on fixing roads and bridges. Illinois is now far behind the national average in doing that, the ASCE said.

Highway bridges aren’t the only ones in trouble. Metra has 488 bridges that are more than 100 years old, including some still made of timber. But the Senate amendment would give only a little more than 10 percent of the new revenues to public transit in northeastern Illinois, compared with a little more than 20 percent in the last capital bill.

Last week’s Senate amendment, introduced by Transportation Committee Chair Sen. Martin Sandoval, D-Chicago, would provide for dependable, recurring revenues — an idea with support among transportation planners.

Illinois’ underfunding of transportation is partly due to the state’s failure to ensure gasoline tax revenue keeps pace with inflation. The tax, which hasn’t been raised since Jim Thompson was governor, has lost almost half of its buying power in real dollars. And even the $2 billion a year that Sandoval’s amendment would raise is only about half of what the Metropolitan Planning Council says Illinois needs over 10 years to get into a state of good repair.

The Legislature can’t afford to come up empty this session on a capital bill.

We don’t need more signs warning us to drive at our own risk.