Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Mini-capital plan coming Thursday

By Bethany Jaeger
State lawmakers are expected to vote tomorrow on a “mini-capital plan,” which would drive $2 billion into crumbling roads and bridges and $1 billion into mass transit as part of a five-year transportation program, relying on bonding and transfers from existing state funds. The plan is being framed as a precursor to a more robust capital plan that would rely on new revenues through driving-related fees and, potentially, tax increases. But some fear enacting a mini-capital plan now could slow the momentum for a larger plan later.

Illinois Department of Transportation Secretary Gary Hannig, former deputy leader for House Speaker Michael Madigan, said this afternoon in the Statehouse that the mini-capital plan would go toward maintaining and fixing existing roads and bridges, not paving new ones.

“Right now, the conditions of our roads as rated by the engineers is about 76 percent, which most people would say is not good,” he said. “Within the next five years, we want to take the conditions of the roads … and bring them up to 90 percent.”

Spending money on existing roads, however, would not tap into federal highway funds that have been waiting a long time for a state match. Hannig added that the proposal would include an emergency plan to fill potholes on some state and local roads.

While Sen. Martin Sandoval, a Chicago Democrat who chairs the Transportation Committee in his chamber, said he would vote to support the mini-capital plan, he said it would be a minimal investment that drastically undercuts the funding needed for mass transit.

There’s been a longstanding agreement that for every $1 spent on mass transit, the state would spend $2 on roads and bridges. Sandoval wants to change that so the state would spend an equal amount on each. He cited a five-year plan to dedicate about $5.5 billion for roads and bridges and another $5.5 billion for transit.

“Now is the time to do it right,” Sandoval said in a Statehouse news conference this afternoon. “Doing it in a half-step method today is the wrong way to go.”

To generate some more money that could shore up funds for mass transit, he supports the idea to increase the state’s motor fuel tax by at least 8 cents a gallon. That’s currently proposed in HB 1. Yet, Sandoval said that a motor fuel tax increase, alone, wouldn’t be enough. It would have to be coupled with Quinn’s proposed increases in driving-related fees, as well as federal funds.

Brian Imus, state director of the Illinois Public Interest Research Group, added that the Illinois Department of Transportation could use some of the $1.4 billion of federal stimulus funds for mass transit, but the department has not planned to do so. (We wrote about mass transit advocates last week.)

Transportation Department spokeswoman Marisa Kollias said the agency decided to put all federal “highway investment” funds into highways rather than into transit. “There are needs in both programs, and we chose to use the limited funds to address road and bridges,” she said in an e-mail.

Sandoval’s push for more mass transit money will come up again the week the legislature returns from its two-week spring break. He said he plans to schedule a public hearing in Springfield to discuss a $13.5 billion capital plan called for by labor and business officials of the Transportation for Illinois Coalition. That $13.5 billion, however, also doesn’t include a specific funding source. The coalition offers general ideas here. The coalition did send letters today to the governor and to lawmakers to say its members supported the mini-capital plan.

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