The urgent need to invest in Illinois transportation - Metropolitan Planning Council

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The urgent need to invest in Illinois transportation

Testimony to IL House of Representatives Capital Appropriations Committee Hearing on Transportation, Presented by Audrey Wennink, MPC Director of Transportation

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.

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.

But Illinois' transportation system has been on a starvation diet. Since the state gas tax was last raised in 1990, its purchasing power has declined by 40 percent. In turn, transportation investment has fallen by 40 percent.  And there is no ongoing state funding for transit capital investments.

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 Regional Transportation Authority, 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.  

The biggest risk may be to job creation and retention.  The Metropolitan Planning Council recently published a report called Transit Means Business, which highlighted the stories of some of Illinois’ major employers who increasingly need transit to access talent.  For example, McDonald’s Corporation found that it was not getting enough quality job applicants at its global headquarters location in Oakbrook which was not transit accessible.  Access to transportation was a main reason for its corporate relocation to Chicago near CTA and Metra services in 2018.  After the move employees’ commutes went from 90% by car to 90% by transit and other means.  The number and quality of job applicants skyrocketed.  Other global corporations are making similar decisions. 

Transit is also critical to downstate communities. Our report showed that in Champaign – Urbana, the transit system serves more than 40,000 students and the broader community, and provides more than 16 million rides annually.  Two-thirds of riders on the local transit system are students, faculty and staff.   Amtrak service forms a critical connection for students who travel home to Chicago and for staff who travel to Chicago for business. When college students were asked in the Midwest Interstate Rail Passenger Commission survey how much access to public transportation will affect a decision to stay in the Midwest after graduating, 46 percent said it would be a factor.

Other major regions’ experiences are a warning signal for the Chicago region’s aging system. For example, consider 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 is trying to catch up by implementing 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.

After extensive study and consulting with transportation experts around the state, in 2016 the Metropolitan Planning Council determined that maintenance and basic upgrades of Illinois transportation infrastructure – transit and roads - 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 meantime, Illinois quality of life is suffering. Last year MPC collected stories about how transportation breakdowns and degraded infrastructure was affecting people’s lives via our #BustedCommute social media campaign.  We heard story after story of people being unable to board full trains, buses running late and roads filled with gargantuan potholes.  These issues are affecting people’s quality of life every day.  And potentially their livelihoods when they are repeatedly late to work due to these transportation problems.

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 soon, so it’s up to us to fund the transportation we need.                  

There is one more very important aspect to investing in infrastructure. There will always be resource constraints.  Therefore we need to commit to spend transportation funds strategically, using data-driven analysis, so we reap the greatest benefits for every dollar invested. The solution to a given transportation project may involve transit, intercity rail, biking, walking or a road improvement.  We must commit to greater transparency for legislators and the public on which projects are selected, why and what benefits are anticipated. This is widely accepted as the best practice in transportation investment nationally.

From damaged vehicles to lost time, our deteriorating infrastructure is taking money out of our pockets and slowing down our economy. Fixing this now will 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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