By Robert Boskovich
Top Democrats emerged from a meeting with President Trump, having agreed on a $2 trillion infrastructure plan, but a clear path to sustainable funding was not discussed. Last week, a follow up meeting set to discuss funding for the plan fell apart. President Trump proposed $1 trillion plan two years ago and it also didn’t come to fruition. Illinois, where an estimated $40 billion is needed just to keep the state’s sagging infrastructure from falling apart, can’t afford to wait on Washington.
The urgency is just too great. Like it or not, it looks like the state must rely on passing a capital bill.
Illinois has a unique competitive economic advantage being a hub for country’s rail, air, roadway and waterway systems. Illinois is the only state in which all major freight railroads operate. The state houses the second largest public transportation system in the U.S. and its waterways connect the agricultural Midwest to major U.S. and international markets. Chicago is one of the largest urban centers in the country and home to several top public universities with their own infrastructure needs.
Unfortunately, in recent years, there has been a trend of underinvestment in infrastructure, threatening our competitive advantage and safety. It has been 10 years since the last capital bill passed. Insufficient funding and “deferred maintenance” have resulted in crumbling infrastructure. According to the Federal Highway Administration, 2,243 of Illinois’ 26,704 bridges are ranked “structurally deficient,”. The American Society of Civil Engineers gave Illinois a C-minus on its latest infrastructure report card.
The Transportation for Illinois Coalition says the state needs to invest $1.8 billion annually, just in basic upkeep. An estimated 40% of roads and 20% of bridges will be in unacceptable condition by next year. Illinois roads are highly prone to congestion. People drive daily on average 20-30 miles out of the way to avoid traffic congestion in Chicago. The state’s waterway locks are on the verge of failure, which could result in the loss of billions of dollars in economic activity.
Our ironworkers in the field, who have worked on almost every structure in Chicago and throughout Illinois, see structural failures every day. The Chicago Skyway Bridge has similar structural deficiencies like the I-35W Mississippi River bridge that collapsed in 2007, but it keeps getting “mended” with minimum maintenance work. Putting Band-Aids on a bridge that’s at risk of structural failure will only lead to a catastrophe.
Motorists on I-80 see a billboard on one side of the bridge that says, “Cross bridge at your own risk.” A billboard for traffic going the opposite direction says, “Bridge ahead in critical condition.” Having to rely on billboards to warn people to drive over a bridge at their own risk is pitiful. The Lakeshore Drive bridge had to be shut down in February when a worker noticed a crack in a support beam. Ironworkers have seen railroad bridges on the verge of collapse. It shouldn’t take a tragic accident like the Minnesota I-35W Mississippi River Bridge collapse for lawmakers to act.
The clock is ticking. We must act now. The recommended 2020 capital budget for the Illinois Department of Transportation is $9.8 billion. Raising the Illinois gas tax would be a good way to cover the cost. It will keep pace with inflation. We need sustainable revenue to make infrastructure overhaul a reality.
A capital budget will receive bipartisan support, just as it did 10 years ago, because it will fund projects throughout the state. Infrastructure funding not only creates jobs but also fuels economic growth and opportunities in every industry. When the state’s leaders take this imminent safety and economic threat seriously and pass a capital bill, an army of skilled building trades craftspeople like the ironworkers stand ready to rebuild our beloved state.
Robert Boskovich is the President of Iron Workers District Council of Chicago and Vicinity.