Why There’s A Push To Change How Illinois Funds Road Projects

May 30, 2019

Construction workers are building the foundation for new tracks at a train crossing south of downtown Springfield. The long-term plan includes new underpasses so cars won’t have to wait for trains.

Several months ago, Springfield Mayor Jim Langfelder sent a letter to lawmakers asking for $127 million in a construction plan to pay for the next phase – new tracks and overpasses farther south.

“The capital bill is very critical to this project, just as it is to the rest of the state’s infrastructure,” said Kirk Brown, a senior policy advisor at Hanson Engineering, the firm leading the project.

Lawmakers are negotiating a capital bill, which funds big road, transit and rail projects, in the final days of the state legislative session that ends Friday night.

For the last several statewide infrastructure plans, city leaders and others have lobbied lawmakers for funds to build new highway lanes or add a crosswalk and turn lanes to an intersection. 

Politically Driven

For decades, lawmakers would trade votes to get a new bridge in their district for a tough vote on a tax increase to fund infrastructure. But legislators are considering a proposal to get rid of that practice.

Instead, the Illinois Department of Transportation would put together a process based on long-range plans and goals, such as reducing fatalities or easing congestion. They’d then evaluate projects and score them, and use those scores to divide up funds. The results would be published, so it’s clear how the funding decisions were made.

Audrey Wennink, director of transportation with the Metropolitan Planning Council, a Chicago-based nonprofit that focuses on sustainable development, said the politically driven way of divvying up money is outdated.

She said the performance-based system is more transparent, which is particularly important as lawmakers consider raising the gas tax, vehicle registration and other fees to pay for infrastructure improvements.

“[Residents] want to have confidence that those dollars are going to be spent on things that are actually going to deliver results, that they're going to actually make their commutes more reliable,” Wennink said. “That they're going to have a safer transportation system; that the transportation system is going to get them where they want to go.”

The federal government is pushing states toward dividing up transportation money this way — tying some funding to performance goals. Illinois is already starting to decide which roads to repave and bridges to repair using performance measures.

They’re putting together a five-year plan that lays out performance measures, including economy, livability, mobility, resiliency and stewardship. According to the draft document, it will guide how projects are funded on an annual basis.

“IDOT looks forward to working with stakeholders on strengthening its performance-based approach to help select projects that expand and grow the transportation network in Illinois, taking into account safety as well as quality of life, multimodal benefits and economic development potential, among other criteria,” an IDOT spokesman wrote in an email.

Still, Wennink said it should be a requirement to avoid having lawmakers prioritize projects when there is an influx of money in a once-in-a-decade infrastructure bill, which is currently how funding works.

She pointed to other states, such as Virginia, that have adopted similar systems. Its department of transportation started awarding money under its Smart Scale program in 2017, after lawmakers changed the system in 2015.

The goal was to ensure projects the state was funding aligned with the long-term transportation plan. Chad Tucker, a manager with Virginia’s Department of Transportation, said Smart Scale changed how people think about a successful transportation project.

“In the past the measure of success was, ‘How much tax dollars did I get for my project?’” he said. “Versus now it’s, ‘How much benefit can I get the public for the least amount of money?’”

Under a similar system, Springfield would have to show how adding train tracks would make the city safer and less congested, and why it’s a good investment. And transportation officials would weigh their proposal against others from around the state and score each of those projects. Brown, the engineer in Springfield, said he believes the rail project would score well.

“The [Federal Railroad Administration] has given us three different grants based on performance indicators,” he said. “Those are very competitive.”

Where the concrete gets poured

A performance-based system is included in at least one version of the infrastructure plan being debated in the final days of the Illinois General Assembly’s spring session. But as lawmakers negotiate a final deal, many are making specific requests for projects in their districts.

Chris Mooney, a political scientist with the University of Illinois at Chicago, said the performance-based system takes the decision making power out of legislators’ hands.

“Politics in Illinois is all about where you pour the concrete,” he said. “So, who gets those roads is often thought about as who’s in favor and so forth.”

Mooney said a lot of transportation decisions are already up to engineers and planners at IDOT, so there’s less vote trading happening.

Still, he said this will happen on other deals at the Statehouse – big initiatives like legalizing marijuana or sports gambling. So if a lawmaker is hesitant about one of those, legislative leaders could offer to hasten funding road repairs in their district.

“It's basically a way of greasing the skids to get other things done,” Mooney said.

Lawmakers may not change the way they hand out money for transportation projects in this infrastructure plan. But a spokesperson for the governor’s administration says he wants to use measurable goals in the future to decide on spending.