Illinois transportation is on a starvation diet - Metropolitan Planning Council

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Illinois transportation is on a starvation diet

Testimony to Illinois House Committee on Roads and Bridges on the Cost of Maintaining Existing Infrastructure

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On December 19th, the Illinois House Transportation Committee held a public hearing in Chicago to discuss the cost of maintaining and modernizing the state’s transportation infrastructure. Chairperson Marcus Evans, Jr. and other members heard testimony from a wide range of public and private stakeholders including IDOT, the RTA, freight railroads, and the Illinois Chamber of Commerce. The discussion touched on two themes: that the interconnected network of road, rail, and waterway is critical to the state’s success, and that current levels of funding are far too low to keep that network from degrading. Audrey Wennink, MPC’s Director of Transportation, weighed in on the conversation with this statement that was submitted to the committee.

What is our vision for Illinois’ future?  Do we want to be a state with high levels of economic activity, a place where people choose to move because of the quality of life, and a state where all residents have access to opportunity?  I am sure we would all answer yes to all of those questions. But unless we seriously invest in our transportation, we are not going achieve any of those goals.  In fact, after decades of insufficient investment, we may be moving in the opposite direction.

Nearly one third of transit infrastructure in Northeastern Illinois is not currently in a state of good repair.

For more than 80 years, the Metropolitan Planning Council has been dedicated to shaping a more equitable, sustainable and prosperous greater Chicago region. We know that a strong and robust transportation is critical to creating a strong, vibrant region.

Illinois' transportation system has been on a starvation diet. Since the state gas tax was last raised in 1991, its purchasing power has declined by more than 40 percent—reducing the average Illinoisan’s annual contribution to transportation infrastructure from the equivalent of $160 to under $100 today. In turn, transportation investment has fallen by 40 percent, and the percentage of our roads in good condition has fallen from the benchmark of 90 percent to only 79 percent in 2015. Without increased investment, only 62 percent of state roads will be in good condition by 2021.

Nearly one third of transit infrastructure in Northeastern Illinois is not currently in a state of good repair. That means that tracks, stations, railcars and buses are older than they were designed to last.  According to the RTA 2016 Capital Asset Condition Report, the maintenance backlog for the three Chicago area transit agencies is more than $19.4 billion. Until we get the entire system’s maintenance current, reliability will be at risk and trips will be longer than they need to be.  We must acknowledge that our system is patched together with scotch tape. For example, Metra’s Capital program for 2017 includes rehabilitating railcars built more than 40 years ago.  There are Metra cars in operation that could qualify for Medicare.

Huge transit failures in other major cities are a warning signal for the Chicago region’s aging system. For example, consider about Washington, D.C.’s Metro system. Once the jewel of metropolitan transit systems, the Metro rail system’s deferral of maintenance recently reached a critical state, resulting in severe safety outcomes, including fires and passenger deaths. Metro tried to catch up by implementing the SafeTrack accelerated maintenance program last year with an infusion of $150 million in emergency funding. This program conducted three years of maintenance in one year by temporarily closing individual or groups of stations to perform extensive repairs, which has been a huge inconvenience to riders.  Some people may never come back to transit after being forced to use other modes during the maintenance crisis.  Remember, Metro was brand new just 40 years ago. That goes to show what severely underfunding maintenance will do.  Our system is more than 100 years old and the maintenance required for older systems is significant.

Without increased investment, only 62 percent of state roads will be in good condition by 2021.

People and businesses expect a functioning, reliable multimodal transportation system, especially in the 3rd largest metro region in the country. But the reality is that we are just not spending enough to get that. The potholes, rail slow zones and bus breakdowns are not something we have to accept.  The Chicago region grew up as a place where businesses could efficiently receive materials and ship finished projects via land, sea or air. Whether a trip on our roads takes 45 minutes or an hour and a half is a gamble every day. 

And what does that mean for our residents and businesses? The impacts go way beyond inconvenience. If hourly workers are late more than a couple of times they may be fired. When people spend lots of time frustrated in congested traffic, air quality goes down, productivity goes down, and stress goes up. Businesses cannot get freight to stores when they cannot move their trucks or freight trains—and that product you want at Target might not be there next time.  When companies cannot get products to market reliably, Illinois becomes less competitive for business. When it takes excessive amounts of time to get around to do even basic errands people start to question whether their lives are becoming unmanageable.  We need to invest to retain our population and businesses in Illinois. 

After extensive study and consulting with transportation experts around the state, last year the Metropolitan Planning Council determined that maintenance and basic upgrades of Illinois transportation infrastructure will require an additional $43 billion in investment over 10 years, or an average of $4.3 billion each year. That's less than we're already wasting today on extra repairs to vehicles as a result of poor road conditions, time lost to congestion and delays, and loss of jobs and investment to neighboring states. Rebuilding our infrastructure will cost less than continuing to suffer. Any less is insufficient to meet the maintenance backlog. Waiting will only increase our costs and put us further behind.

In the past we've relied on infrequent (and inadequate) capital bills to patch together funding.  To allow us to return our roads, bridges and transit to good condition and plan for growth, we need a substantial, regular, reliable source of revenue. Thirty-one states have passed bills to raise sustainable transportation revenue since 2012. Now it’s way past time for Illinois to take action. We need to consider raising the gas tax and/or vehicle registrations in the short term and researching other longer-term solutions for sustainable transportation revenue, like a distance- based user fee. There is no Federal infrastructure legislation expected anytime soon, so it’s up to us to fund the transportation we need.                  

There is one more very important component to increasing revenue. To ensure the public’s trust we need to commit to spend these new funds strategically, using a performance-based planning process, so we reap the greatest benefits for every dollar invested.  We must commit to greater transparency for legislators and the public on which projects are selected, why and what benefits are anticipated.

From damaged vehicles to lost time, our deteriorating infrastructure is taking money out of our pockets and slowing down our economy. Fixing this will actually cost us less in the long run.



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For more than 80 years, the Metropolitan Planning Council (MPC) has made the Chicago region a better place to live and work by partnering with businesses, communities and governments to address the area's toughest planning and development challenges. MPC works to solve today's urgent problems while consistently thinking ahead to prepare the region for the needs of tomorrow. Read more about our work »

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