EDITORIAL: After years of penny-pinching, let’s fully refuel our transit system
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Chicago claims to be the transportation capital of the Midwest. But the ever-dwindling investment Illinois makes in its roads, bridges, buses and trains is something you’d expect to find in a slow-moving backwater.
After decades of neglect, Illinois must do something major about a transportation system that is increasingly antiquated and in disrepair, creating a drag on the whole state’s economy.
Now, with a new governor set to take office in January and a smarter sense of priorities, that could happen.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel and a group of suburban mayors and regional planners were on target Tuesday when they proposed boosting the state’s gasoline tax by up to 30 cents a gallon to fix roads and improve mass transit. Nobody likes higher taxes, but the state’s 19-cents-per-gallon gasoline tax hasn’t been raised since 1990, which means it produces about half the revenues in real dollars that it did then.
Sales taxes, which also are levied on gasoline purchases, go into state and local general funds and aren’t necessarily spent on transportation.
The results of this miserliness are everywhere. Traffic jams are common on roads where crucial improvements remain on drawing boards. Basic CTA upgrades remain on the back burner, though a $2.1 billion federally funded modernization of the Red and Purple lines remains on track. More than half of Metra’s bridges are more than 100 years old, and some are still made of timber. Creaky railroad signals and locomotives that are in use long past their sell-by dates cause frequent delays.
“We have tried the approach of starving the transportation system of additional resources,” Emanuel told the Sun-Times Editorial Board on Wednesday. “If you think that’s a good thing to do — the same thing we have been doing … then you can advocate for it.”
Since 1990, Illinois has “tried almost every other source to avoid a gas tax increase, and they’ve kind of run out of options,” said Stephen Schlickman, former director Urban Transportation Center.
The only real solution would seem to be a hike in the gas tax, unpopular as that is sure to be, creating a steady stream of new revenue dedicated solely to our state’s transportation needs.
For those who worry the gasoline tax is regressive — more of a burden on lower income folks than on the wealthy — it might be more palatable to them if linked to an increase in the minimum wage.
As Ald. Ameya Pawar (47th), a progressive Democrat who is running for city treasurer, said during a separate meeting with us on Wednesday: “If it’s tied to a living wage or … a $15 minimum wage, that is a great way to start.”
Jacky Grimshaw, vice president for government affairs at the Center for Neighborhood Technology, also supports linking the gasoline tax increase to a boost in the minimum wage to $15 an hour.
“If we create increased costs for people, we ought to provide the ability for people to be able to afford it,” Grimshaw said Wednesday.
On Wednesday, Regional Transportation Authority Chairman Kirk Dillard said Illinois is among the 10 lowest states in the amount of gasoline taxes it raises for roads, bridges and mass transit. And, he argued, that simply will not sustain a modern economy.
“The governors around us, especially Indiana and Iowa have realized this” and raised gasoline taxes, Dillard said. Indiana, for example, raised its levy last year from 18 cents per gallon to 29 cents. Wisconsin and Iowa impose state gas taxes of 31 cents per gallon. Since 2012, at least 24 states have raised their gasoline tax.
Contributing to the transit funding problem in Illinois, the federal government, like Illinois, has allowed the revenues it raises through fuel taxes to dwindle in real dollars each year. The federal excise tax of 18.4 cents on a gallon of gasoline hasn’t changed since 1993 and is not indexed to inflation. And that makes it all harder for Illinois to turn to Washington for help.
But while lawmakers in Springfield and Washington procrastinate, the cost of maintenance and upgrades keeps going up. When it last calculated in 2016, the RTA estimated that the cost of getting the Chicago region’s public transportation system into a state of good repair over 10 years at $37 billion. It might be close to $40 billion now.
As more electric cars and propane-fueled trucks, which don’t use gasoline, drive on our roads, the state will have to find a way to ensure they, too, contribute to upkeep of the transportation grid. They drive those same roads and create the same potholes.
But for now, the first priority should be to increase the gasoline tax — in keeping with many other states — and index the rate to inflation so that it doesn’t lose its value over the years.
We often write that it’s time Illinois got moving again. In this case, we mean that literally.
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