The numbers are staggering:
• 730 bridges accounting for 79 million square feet
• $15 billion for highway maintenance
• $250 million for airports
• $19.1 billion for public transportation
• $800 million for passenger railroads
• $4 billion for freight railroads
Illinois Department of Transportation acting Secretary Matt Magalis gave lawmakers those figures last week, according to Capitol News Illinois. He didn’t have a nice, round figure for locks and dams, but put the projected repair cost is in the ballpark of “hundreds of millions of dollars.”
“Unfortunately, as you can tell traveling around our state, our infrastructure continues to deteriorate faster than we can maintain it,” Magalis said.
Our readers don’t have to travel too far. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is closing six Illinois River locks and dams next year for repair, the most significant of which will happen in Ottawa and Marseilles. In nearby Joliet, the mayor is in a mild war of words with the Illinois Department of Transportation over the safety of the Interstate 80 bridge crossing the Des Plaines River. And have we mentioned the potholes?
These major expenditures would break any state’s budget, but it’s an especially tall order in Illinois, which has endured years of fiscal uncertainty and now is led by a governor whose plans tend to focus more on headline-grabbing changes in the way things are done and less on the below-the-fold realities of keeping everything functioning properly.
If new bonds are issued to fund yet another capital plan, the state will need either new revenue to pay for those bonds or to sufficiently rededicate an existing funding stream. No state agency will line up to offer itself for a budget reduction, and no taxpayer wants to contribute more than the bare minimum. This is going to be tricky.
Yet difficult is not the only word that can be used to frame the state’s transportation infrastructure needs. Essential could be another. After all, the network of rivers, highways, railroads and airports is the backbone of our diverse economy. Everything grown here must get to market. Everything sold here has to arrive at its point of purchase – at the very least move from place to place within the state. And although modern technology allows folks to work from home, there still are millions of vehicles on the road every day, either driven for a professional purpose or simply getting people to the job site and home.
If Illinois doesn’t have functional roads and bridges, rivers and rails, it doesn’t have a functioning economy, be it agricultural, industrial, retail or otherwise. This is as true in Streator as it is in Chicago or Decatur or Rockford or Peoria.
We urge Gov. J.B. Pritzker and lawmakers to devote serious time and energy to determining the best way to efficiently tackle this problem and to accept that the costs of waiting can be more severe than simple inflation.
Transportation infrastructure is more important than legalizing recreational marijuana or sports gambling, to name two examples, and any work done to generate new revenue for new projects before solving a fundamental issue already clearly identified is nothing short of irresponsible.
We’re not asking lawmakers to raise taxes or fees, although we realize that likely will be part of whatever solution emerges. What we do want is for frank discussion about solving our infrastructure issues to take significant priority in Springfield. There already are five public meetings around the state in the next two months, and we hope more will be scheduled.
This problem is too big to be taken with anything less than utmost urgency.