As Illinois General Assembly Session’s End Looms, Fate of Capital Bill Unknown

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By KERRY SMITH, EDITOR, ST. LOUIS CONSTRUCTION NEWS AND REVIEW MAGAZINE

Less than two hours before the official end of the Illinois General Assembly’s regular legislative session in Springfield, the answer as to whether both sides of the aisle would unite to fund a statewide capital improvements bill remained unclear.

“For years we’ve been close to getting horizontal or vertical construction (funding) passed, but it just didn’t happen,” said Dave Bender, president and CEO of the American Council of Engineering Companies of Illinois, an affiliate whose members include more than 240 engineering firms across Illinois members and nearly 14,000 engineering professionals. “Two years ago, it was down to the very last day (of session) and they had a deal on the table, but there was a blow-up on the floor, they gaveled, and the session was over. It has been 10 years since Illinois’ last mini-capital bill. The shelves at our (Illinois) DOT (Dept. of Transportation) are empty. We’ve got to pass a capital bill of some sort or risk losing our federal (funding) match,” he added.

As it stands, IDOT’s funding streams are comprised of 90 percent from the federal government and just 10 percent from the state. Bender says to bring Illinois’ highway infrastructure up to acceptable standards, it will take an additional $3 billion annually – $3 billion in addition to the $2 billion annually that is already being generated through a combination of gasoline tax revenues and increased vehicle registration fees. “Every penny generates about $65 million,” Bender said, “but Illinois is slipping because it didn’t index the gas tax (fee of 19 cents) over time (for inflation). If we had indexed it since 1990 – the last time it was increased – it would be 38 cents (per gallon of gasoline) by now. We need a minimum of 38 cents, double what it is and what it has remained for 29 years.”

Two potential outcomes were in the mix at press time, according to Bender: 1) A failsafe version of a capital improvement plan that would be limited to horizontal construction capital projects, meaning roads, bridges and mass transit infrastructure, but no vertical construction capital efforts such as improving and expanding state-owned facilities; and 2) A much more comprehensive capital plan that would include both horizontal and vertical construction projects.

“Vertical is the real problem in terms of creating a funding mechanism in contrast with horizontal-specific funding such as user fees that go directly toward transportation infrastructure needs,” Bender said Thursday. “When you walk inside a state of Illinois building and use the elevator, there’s no fee. For vertical, legislators are looking at options like sports gaming, the possibility of recreational marijuana, a parking garage fee, a minimal increase in the cigarette sales tax or a small increase in the liquor (sales) tax, a video streaming tax and more. Alternative ways to fund vertical construction will be challenging,” he added. “But to do nothing year after year is like watching your 100-year-old Victorian home’s mounting issues that you’ve learned are due to a crumbling foundation and opting to ignore the expensive underlying structural issues and choosing only to put new shingles on the roof.”

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