Peoria Journal Star

April 14, 2003

State seeks federal funding increase
Illinois roads in desperate need of 'major surgery,' transportation official says

By DORI MEINERT
of Copley News Service

WASHINGTON, D.C. - Illinois will spend about $50 million a mile to reconstruct Interstate 74 through Peoria.

A remake of Chicago's Dan Ryan Expressway is estimated to cost $66 million per mile.

The state's aging interstate system is well beyond the facelift stage: It's in need of major surgery.

"If we don't get additional federal funds, you're going to start to see roads deteriorate," Illinois Transportation Secretary Timothy Martin said recently after describing the state's plight on Capitol Hill.

As Congress begins debate on a new six-year federal transportation program, Martin and the Illinois congressional delegation are seeking to increase the state's share of federal transportation funding.

In 1998, Congress reworked the funding formula for states, turning Illinois for the first time into a "donor" state: It receives just 92 cents in return for each dollar sent to Washington in federal fuel taxes.

In addition to the formula changes, House members from Illinois are seeking hundreds of millions of dollars for local road projects in their congressional districts.

"There is just a lot at stake for Illinois," said Rep. Jerry Costello, D-Belleville, one of four Illinois lawmakers on the House Transportation Committee, which is currently drafting a bill.

Given the state's $5 billion deficit and the slated expiration next year of the Illinois FIRST program, which pumped more state money into road repairs, the condition of Illinois roads is only going to get worse, state officials say.

Illinois isn't the only state in dire straits when it comes to road repairs, a recent government study found. And, like Illinois, many other states are also facing state budget crises.

"The major hurdle for everyone is simply funding," said Rep. Tim Johnson, R-Urbana, another member of the House panel.

However, the cost of the war with the Iraq combined with the president's push to cut taxes and the rising federal deficit will make it difficult to increase highway spending unless new sources of funding are found.

House Transportation Committee leaders want to increase transportation funding to $375 billion over the next six years, a 73 percent increase from the $218 billion approved in 1998. To do so, they have proposed raising the federal gas tax by as much as 8 cents a gallon by 2009 and possibly eliminating ethanol tax breaks.

Both options create a dilemma for Illinois lawmakers, who must weigh the funding of popular road projects against their constituents' antipathy toward tax increases and support of corn-based ethanol.

"The timing could not be worse" for consideration of a gas tax, said Costello, noting the lagging economy and gas prices that remain about 17 cents higher than last year.

He's joined by many other Illinois lawmakers, who fear their constituents won't tolerate a gas tax increase on top of already high prices at the pump. They include Reps. Lane Evans, D-Rock Island; Ray LaHood, R-Peoria; John Shimkus, R-Collinsville; Jerry Weller, R-Morris; Johnson; and Sens. Dick Durbin, D-Ill.; and Peter Fitzgerald, R-Ill.

"Nobody likes a tax increase," acknowledged LaHood, although he didn't rule out the idea.

Significantly, House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Yorkville, isn't inclined to support a gas tax increase or elimination of tax breaks for ethanol, a spokesman said. Neither is President Bush.

Yet Chicago Rep. William Lipinski, the senior Democrat on the House Transportation Committee, argues that 42,000 jobs would be created for every $1 billion invested in the transportation system. Major companies like Caterpillar Inc., which shipped $120 million in materials by road last year, have urged Congress to consider a gas tax increase.

A boost in revenue also would decrease the competition among state and local officials for scarce federal dollars.

While the Illinois congressional delegation strongly supports government incentives for ethanol production, the state loses $90 million a year in federal funds because of the way that ethanol is handled in the current highway funding distribution formula, state officials say. The more ethanol that is used, the less highway money the state gets.

Ethanol blends are taxed at 5.3 cents per gallon less than regular gasoline. Earlier this month, the Senate Finance Committee approved a plan to reshape ethanol tax incentives to appease highway advocates and ethanol supporters, effectively shifting the $2 billion a year cost to the general fund. The committee also would move 2.5 cents of the 13.1-cents-per-gallon ethanol tax back to the Highway Trust Fund, adding about $600 million annually.

Highway advocates in Congress cite a national poll that indicates two-thirds of the American public would support a gas tax increase if they knew the money would go directly to improving roads, bridges and public transit. The poll was funded by the American Road & Transportation Builders Association, which is lobbying for what it prefers to call a "user fee."

Major opponents include the American Trucking Association, whose members consume 44 billion gallons of fuel annually and are paying $200 more for a fill-up now than they did a year ago. ATA President Bill Graves said truckers will "will fight any fuel tax increase to the end."