Monday, March 23, 2009

Countdown to capital begins

By Bethany Jaeger and Jamey Dunn
Gov. Pat Quinn wants at least a portion of his statewide plan for major construction projects approved by the General Assembly before April 3. That’s the last session day scheduled before legislators are supposed to head home for a two-week spring break, and Quinn reportedly said today that he thinks they should bypass spring break to work on a capital plan.

The $26 billion plan, called Illinois Jobs Now, eventually would fund infrastructure, mass transit, railroad improvements, new school buildings, housing, conservation projects, and water treatment projects. Two new projects also would include an airport near Chicago’s south suburbs and the construction of the first veterans’ home within Chicago.

The proposed funding mechanisms, as usual, spark controversy. If Quinn’s budget plan were approved, vehicle-related fees would help fund road and bridge construction. (Driver’s license fees would increase from $10 to $20; license plate fees would go from $79 to $99; and vehicle registration fees would rise from $15 to $30.) Mass transit projects would be funded by title transfer fees, which would increase from $65 to $105.

Plans to build new schools, then, would be funded by shaving a portion of tax revenues typically given to local governments.

In addition to federal stimulus money, Quinn also proposes using about $150 million a year from the state’s dedicated Road Fund. That would allow the state to bond/borrow money to pay for projects specifically for roads and bridges.

That’s one portion of a capital plan that could be done by April 3. Senate President John Cullerton said it could be realistic for the legislature to approve increasing the amount the state may borrow for the purposes of kick-starting a road program and tapping into federal matching funds.

The part of the capital plan that will take the longest to negotiate is other sources of funding, especially if it's intertwined with an attempt to increase the state income tax rate or motor fuel tax rate. For instance, Cullerton said he still supports the idea of increasing the state’s 19-cent tax on each gallon of motor fuel, which hasn’t changed since 1990. He describes the motor fuel tax as a traditional way to pay for roads, and because it’s a so-called user fee, people could adjust their lifestyles if they didn’t want to pay more. (Senate Democrats are working on a plan that would increase the tax by about 16 cents, while the House is considering a bill to increase the tax by 8 cents.) According to Cullerton, an 8-cent increase could generate $500 million.

Sen. Martin Sandoval, a Chicago Democrat who chairs the Transportation Committee in his chamber, agreed that an increase in the gasoline tax has support in the legislature and would fund a “robust” capital plan. He’s sponsoring SB 200, which doesn’t have language, yet, but could be used to advance a motor fuel tax bill.

Sandoval is one critic of Quinn’s capital plan because, he said, he’s concerned it would be unfair to Chicago. “Mass transit takes a huge hit at a time when we’re preparing for the Olympics, at a time when we’re trying to protect the environment, at a time when we’re trying to put people back to work. Gov. Quinn is going in the wrong direction when it relates to mass transit.”

Under Quinn’s proposed budget, the Chicago-area Regional Transportation Authority would lose $32 million in grants for operating assistance. Public transportation also would lose about $42 million, but that’s based on decreased sales tax revenues. Downstate transportation districts, on the other hand, would see an increase of about $24 million.

Jennifer Morrison, managing director of the Transportation for Illinois Coalition, said that her organization was encouraged by Quinn's emphasis on a long-awaited capital plan but that the funding for mass transit, highways and local roads would be “way too small to make any meaningful impact.” She added that the budget plan is “more than a little unclear” about which revenue sources would be designated to which projects.

While neither Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno nor House Minority Leader Tom Cross supports Quinn’s fee increases, they said last week that they do hope to meet with the governor to work out a compromise.

Another part of the plan that will take a long time to negotiate is how the money would be distributed throughout the state. Not only could it differ depending on the source of revenue approved by the legislature, but it also could change if Democratic Rep. Kathleen Ryg of Vernon Hills has her say.

She wants the planning process to empower local stakeholders through various metropolitan planning organizations. House Bill 2359 would create a new advisory committee to the Illinois Department of Transportation when prioritizing road projects. Ryg said the new committee would help assure taxpayers and state officials that the limited amount of money available would be spent on the best use, particularly as a capital bill is drafted and new revenue sources are generated.

The recent appointment of Transportation Secretary Gary Hannig, a former state representative and budget expert for House Democrats, actually could help the measure advance. Ryg said this afternoon that she changed her bill from its original form in response to concerns expressed by Hannig shortly after his transition from the legislature to the state agency. Now Ryg's bill would ensure more representation for all areas of the state, including those that don't have metropolitan planning organizations.

Her bill also would change the way projects would get funded. Currently, engineers distribute money based on such factors as the condition of roads, the traffic flow and the population served. Ryg said her bill would fund the greatest maintenance needs first, and then the regional groups would advise the Transportation Department on other local needs. All areas of the state would be evaluated under the same set of new criteria.

Regardless of which revenue sources the General Assembly ultimately agrees upon, the influx of money has some legislators nervous about whether their districts will benefit. So watch for the concept in Ryg’s bill to serve as a potential “accountability” measure, meant to assure legislators that, at the least, their areas would be represented in the decision-making process.


Randy Neufeld said...

Where's this from?
"Regional Transportation Authority would lose $32 million in grants for operating assistance."
the capital bill doesn't have any cuts in it.


Bethany Jaeger said...

Page 10-45 of the governor's proposed budget (or page 351 of the PDF), found here under "RTA Operating Assistance Grants":

House Democrats' budget analysis also lists it on page 40 of their summary.