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Gov. James R. Thompson

Save our roads, save our economy

RIGHT NOW we've got a situation in Illinois that's bad. It's our road system. We don't have enough money to keep up the system and it's deteriorating --falling apart. Two-thirds of our road system was built before World War II.

We've got 3,000 miles of rough, narrow, crumbling pavements with potholes, narrow bridges and more bridges that can't meet legal road limits. They all need fixing. Every year we add another 500 miles of bad roads and 70 bad bridges without revenues to fix them.

If we don't raise new revenues, this situation will get worse.

All this talk about bad roads and gas tax increases reminds me of something Harry Truman once said: "I never gave them hell. I just told them the truth and they thought it was hell."

I think I know how Truman felt.

There isn't a driver in this state who hasn't hit the bumps. Not one who hasn't dodged a pothole or driven on an unsafe road. These things didn't happen over night.

But like all long-standing problems, there aren't any easy remedies. When I took office, we went ahead for two years with one of the largest road programs of any state. We squeezed every cent out of the federal government to pay for the program. In the federal primary highway program alone, Illinois got 40 percent of all the funds that were allotted for the entire nation.

But that wasn't enough. We upped our road bond sales, but that still wasn't enough. We cut our transportation work force and saved millions of dollars for actual road work, but that wasn't enough either. None of it was. Because the one place to get enough money for a state road program is from the gas tax and license plates fees. Now that brings us to the problem.

These fees were last changed more than 10 years ago. Since then they have stayed the same while the economy moved ahead year after year. Road building costs are 25 percent higher than a year ago. Last year's $666 million state road program was worth only $260 million in buying power against 10 years ago when the tax was set. So our dollars in the Road Fund today buy only a fraction of what they did several years ago. Without new money, our road system is in trouble.

Revenue from gas taxes and license fees in real purchasing power is growing at about half the rate it was just a few years ago.

It's no magic trick. Not a mystery. Petroleum prices have risen since the Arab oil embargo in 1973. And the higher prices have had two impacts. People drive less. And they drive in more fuel-efficient cars. The result: Less revenue from the gas tax.

Smaller cars also mean lower license fees and less money from motor vehicle registrations, a trend we think will continue for at least another 10 years. Across the next five years without any changes, state transportation revenues will fall behind by about $1.2 billion, including hundreds of millions in federal dollars lost to other states because Illinois won't have the matching funds.

In order to correct this problem, we've got to act now and I've proposed a plan. Others are proposing plans of their own, but I think mine is the most sensible because it can be done. It is not a plan just to spend, but to finance sensible spending to keep Illinois' road system in shape. If we don't act soon, we're going to be the pothole capital of the world.

I want Illinois motorists to approve a plan that will cost each one of us only about $20 a year over the next four years or a nickle-a-day. It costs $42 to replace a pair of broken shock absorbers. A lost hubcap costs $21 to replace. Try to buy a new tire for less than $61. I don't think $20 a motorist is exhorbitant.

I think it makes sense and is a good investment in our transportation future.

My recommendation is to raise the motor fuel tax from 7.5 cents to 9 cents a gallon, with a shift to a variable rate adjusted periodically according to economic growth. It will tie the tax to people's ability to pay, not gasoline prices. And we'd still be behind most other states. Thirty-six other states are higher than Illinois now. Iowa just went from 7 to 10 cents a gallon over two years and Washington state from 9 to 11 cents a gallon.

Also, I recommend increasing car license fees $3 a year through 1983 for cars under 35 horsepower. For those over 35 horsepower, we need an increase of $5 a year in the same period. Truck fees would increase an average of $15 a year through 1983.

These new monies would let us have an average yearly road program of $900 million, including a phase-out of the distasteful diversions of gas tax money to non-road programs. The alternative is a $364 million disaster in fiscal 1980 --next year.

In terms of what we can buy with my program in concrete and asphalt, we can resurface 2,400 miles of bad road --most of them in neighborhoods where people live. We can widen 500 unsafe intersections, repair or replace 500 crumbling bridges, give $360 million to local governments to fix 116,000 miles of local roads, and we can complete the downstate interstate system and fix hundreds of miles of other interstate routes that are crying for repair.

One job in five in Illinois depends on our road system. Good roads are good business, more industry and more jobs. Is $20 a year too much to pay for that? The choice is yours.

35 / May 1979 / Illinois Issues

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