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Illinois politicians want to improve roads and bridges, but can the state afford it?

Belleville News Democrat

Saturday, November 11, 2017  |  Article  |  By Joseph Bustos

Bonds, Bonding, Borrowing, Debt, Credit Rating , Transportation (91)
Legislators could begin considering major investments in state infrastructure needs in the future, just in time for election year politics.

Lawmakers in Springfield have been discussing the need for a capital bill in the state, the first in nearly a decade.

The last time the state had a capital bill was in 2009 when Gov. Pat Quinn and the General Assembly approved a $31 billion Illinois Jobs Now! program, which was dovetailed to the federal stimulus program approved under President Barack Obama.

That capital plan included money for a new science lab at Southern Illinois University in Edwardsville, and construction of a new interchange at Interstate 70 and Illinois 3 in Fairmont City, among other projects.

Metro-east legislators say there are still infrastructure needs that need attention.

State Rep. Jerry Costello II, D-Smithon, says the Chester Bridge is old and in need of repair or replacement.

“If you look at a lot of the infrastructure in this state, especially in Southern Illinois, a lot was built in the 50s or 60s. We have bridges and roads that are in real need of repair,” Costello said.

“We haven’t done a capital bill of any real means in years.”

Whether there is a capital bill in the next session remains to be seen. Voters in 2016 passed a lock box amendment, which prevents money originally designated for road work from being swept into other state accounts for other purposes.

“The lock box amendment to direct dollars toward transportation and infrastructure it’s phenomenal, but we’ve got to put other monies into infrastructure if we plan on attracting businesses,” Costello said.

State Rep. Jay Hoffman, D-Swansea, said a capital plan would help create jobs in the state.

“There are infrastructure needs in the metro-east and throughout the state that aren’t being met, whether it’s just maintenance of bridges and roads or new capacity,” Hoffman said. “We need a capital bill, and we need a bill that puts people to work and provides the infrastructure needs that will continue to allow growth and economic development. We haven’t had one here in a long time. That to me should be one of our top priorities.”

The St. Louis Regional Freightway has listed projects it says are needed to help move goods through the area.

Among the projects the freightway listed as needed are replacing the I-270 bridge estimated to cost $160 million to $170 million; constructing a relocated Illinois 3 from East St. Louis to Sauget at an estimated cost between $125 million to $170 million, depending on how many lanes are built, and replacing the 128-year-old Merchants Bridge, estimated to cost $200 million.
“One of the top priorities of the St. Louis Regional Freightway is to ensure that the bi-state region is able to accommodate and take full economic advantage of a 45 percent growth in national freight volume projected over the next 25 years,” said Mary Lamie, freightway executive director. “These infrastructure needs are critical toward the region’s economic future, and we look forward to working with the state of Illinois and providing our full support as they take a close look at these projects and their impact to the state.”

Ronda Sauget, the executive director of the Leadership Council Southwestern Illinois, said there is a need for infrastructure investment, including upgrades to ports and bridges. The leadership council has been among the organizations pushing for an upgrade to the Merchants Bridge, which carries railroads moving freight across the Mississippi River.

“When looking at economic development as a whole, economic development follows great infrastructure,” Sauget said. “Roads that support transportation of freight, (and) port facilities need to be upgraded.”

State Sen. Paul Schimpf, R-Waterloo, also has been discussing the need to have a four-lane highway between the metro-east and Carbondale, which could benefit Southern Illinois University Carbondale. There is a coalition working again to try to encourage money to be brought to expand a two-lane route that could go through Jackson, Randolph, Perry and Monroe counties.

Ultimately how to pay for a new capital bill is something that needs to be figured out.

State Sen. Bill Haine, D-Alton said a revenue stream is something that the governor would need to propose. The last Illinois capital bill included new revenue streams to pay for it, including the legalization of video gaming in bars and fraternal organizations and increases in vehicle license plate fees.

State Sen. Kyle McCarter, R-Lebanon, said discussing a capital bill, especially one that would require additional revenue sources, would be wrong for a state that is struggling financially.

“If you’re having a hard time paying your light bill, you don’t build the two-car garage on your house,” McCarter said. “That’s exactly where we’re at. We are a state that is still working under an unbalanced budget of nearly $3 billion. Despite what anybody claimed last time, we’re still spending more than we have coming in. To say that we want to spend money on capital that we don’t have I think is extremely irresponsible.”

McCarter said he would be against increasing taxes or fees, especially because the state recently increased income taxes.

“The government is not the solution to putting people back to work. Let the people keep their money and they will put people back to work. They will buy the goods and spend money for services that will put people back to work. Investing in government to increase jobs has been proven not to be the best investment,” McCarter said. “Do we have needs? Yes we have needs, but we have money that has been collected and directed toward roads, and we’re going to have to live within our means.”

Calling for a capital bill 12 months before a general election is politically expedient, said Andrew Theising, associate professor of political science at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville.
“First, it is usually a large amount of money that is spent across professions,” Theising said, such as on engineers, architects, bricklayers and painters. “Infrastructure bills help lots of constituencies, with very big numbers.

“Second, it’s very visible work. People see a bridge being constructed, people see a dam being built. People see a new building going up, so it’s very very visible. And sometimes there are signs posted around these to indicate who is responsible, which politicians are responsible.

“The third piece is it makes great Election Day rhetoric. ... When the campaigns start, spring, summer, fall, the primary and general election campaigns are underway, politicians can hold up the example of the capital bill as something they did for their home district.”

However, capital bills usually have bonds and debt attached to them. Theising said the state received a good interest rate in its recent bond issue, but it wasn’t the best number.

“Unfortunately, Illinois is in such an economic mess, Illinois can’t get the best possible terms when borrowing large sums money,” Theising said. “Certainly banks and financial institutions will still do business with Illinois, but we’re not going to get the terms for our bonds that other states would get.”