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Funding for local highways remains down the road

    Major Metro East transportation projects remain priorities of local leaders, but construction relies on uncertain federal and state funds.
    Still, the fiscal logjam is going to ease at some point, and it will be a good idea to have priorities “in the queue,” Sen. Martin Sandoval, D-Chicago, told local leaders in a recent Belleville appearance.
    Sandoval and others spoke about the situation during a February forum sponsored by Leadership Council Southwestern Illinois.
    Dozens of projects of importance to the region have been laid out by the council’s Southwestern Illinois Transportation Enhancement Committee, called SITE. The group represents members from both public and private concerns who have expertise in economic development. They analyze and vet multimodal projects for funding, and the ones that end up on the Leadership Council list are considered priorities. State funded projects range from continuing ones that are already funded to those for which funds won’t come without a new capital bill.
    Such a bill would depend first on approval of a permanent state operating budget, which has been held up for more than a year while the Republican governor and Democratic legislative leaders wrangle over his reform agenda. The governor has said he could agree to no tax increase to finance an overall budget without changes to assist the business environment in Illinois.
    “I truly believe that a budget in the state of Illinois … can be resolved in a matter of hours if rational minds come together,” Sandoval said.
    So far, that still hasn’t happened. The governor offered his third budget message in a row this past month and the Democrats’ response was tepid at best. The 20-month standoff continued at press time.
    Some wonder if the state could get an infusion of federal money even sooner: President Trump has promised to pump almost a trillion dollars into infrastructure, but that of course depends on Congress and even his own party is concerned about how such an investment could affect the deficit.
    The likelihood is good that Illinois will eventually have money to spend, and for that Sandoval says project supporters should be ready.
    “Continue to be ready for when the bell rings,” he said. “Once they get past the budget, it will move so fast. If we are not aware of your project, if we are not aware of your needs, you clearly will be left in the dust. In the new way we do things in Springfield, there are no more earmarks (discretionary money). Everything has to be delineated with a price tag when we pass a capital bill.”
    In Illinois, road projects are funded mainly by a combination of state and federal fuel taxes and fees, which have dwindled in recent years, and bond-supported programs like the $31 billion, six-year “Illinois Jobs Now” bill — the last multi-year capital program, passed in 2009.
    IDOT Secretary Randy Blankenhorn participated in last month’s forum. IDOT operates on a four-year budget, and many important projects are proceeding, despite the uncertainty over future funds.
    Blankenhorn discussed the need to have sustainable sources of funding.
    “At the federal level, we’re excited when we hear this administration say it wants to put a trillion dollars into infrastructure spending. Where the money is going to come from, I don’t know. But I think it’s started a conversation,” Blankenhorn said.
    On the state side, “It’s been a long time since we raised revenues in a real way for transportation. We had some bonding bills over the last 10 or 15 years, but we haven’t had a lot of new revenue behind it,” he said. “I’m a believer that users pay. It’s the fairest way to fund transportation. Honestly, I’m tired of funding transportation on gambling and cigarettes. That’s not the way to fund our infrastructure. We have to come together on a revenue stream that’s going to work, that’s going to be sustainable over time and that we’re not going to have to come back in five or six years and say we’re out of money again.”

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