Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Alternative transportation

By Jamey Dunn
A transportation and business group is proposing what it says is a more specific plan than Gov. Pat Quinn’s proposal for major construction plans for roads, bridges and transit.

Sen. Martin Sandoval, a Cicero Democrat and chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, came out in support of the Transportation for Illinois Coalition’s proposed capital plan today. The coalition claims the plan calls for more state money than Gov. Pat Quinn’s proposal for a capital plan, but almost $10 billion less than the coalition says the state should be investing in its infrastructure.

According to a 2006 study commissioned by the Transportation for Illinois Coalition, the unfunded need for Illinois transportation projects exceeds $23 billion. That number has not been adjusted for inflation. Linda Wheeler, a transportation consultant for the Transportation for Illinois Coalition, said the findings mirror the Illinois Department of Transportation’s estimates of the unmet needs.

In an attempt to be more realistic about the state’s budget restraints, the coalition has since pared that number down to a $13.5 billion “minimally adequate” plan. Michael Kleinik, Transportation for Illinois Coalition co-chair, said, “There is little money for expansion in this proposal, but it does bring us closer to where we need to be.”

Wheeler said that Quinn’s proposed budget is not specific enough about how much state money would go toward transportation and that it uses some creative accounting techniques. She said that some of the money that is listed as highway funding actually would go toward debt service on bonds.

Sandoval said he wants to fund the alternative plan with a motor-fuel tax increase, which he said has support in the Senate. However, he said he supports a higher increase than a version proposed in the House, which seeks an 8 cents per gallon increase. Sandoval said that he thinks there is little to no support for Quinn’s proposal to spend part of the money from an income tax increase to fund a capital plan.

While Sandoval had the backing of business groups, labor unions, transit officials and transportation experts, he was the only legislator making a pitch for the coalition’s proposal.

Sandoval urged swift action to hammer out a plan that could find enough votes to pass. “We are at a crossroads literally and figuratively here in Illinois, and if we don’t get it right today, I don’t know if we ever will.”

Many of the speakers who addressed the Senate committee this morning raised concerns that too much squabbling in Illinois over a capital plan could hurt the state’s image in Washington, D.C. and possibly damage its ability to seek increased federal funding in the future.

“It’s not lost on me, and I think it’s not lost on anyone in Washington who follows what’s going on in the states, that Illinois has struggled to come to terms with what it needs to do in the long term,” said Janet Kavinoky of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. “But, the longer you debate and discuss and struggle with who’s going to invest in what, and who’s going to get credit for what, … it appears chaotic.”

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