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Metropolitan Planning Council and the Civic Committee back new transportation funding overhaul bill

Tuesday, Feb 23, 2021

* Greg Hinz

Pushing infrastructure reform as a matter of racial equity, Chicago business and civic groups have launched a legislative campaign to get state transportation officials to throw out the pork barrel and instead use detailed, apolitical criteria in deciding how to spend billions of dollars on road and transit projects.

In a press conference, the Metropolitan Planning Council and the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club announced their support for a measure introduced by Rep. Kam Buckner and Sen. Ram Villivalam, both Chicago Democrats.

The bill would direct the Illinois Department of Transportation to develop “risk-based” and “needs-based” systems to use in deciding which projects to fund—and which not to fund.

Illinois transportation funding often has devolved to a political scrum, with projects such as building a third airport or the proposed Illiana Expressway advancing or failing because of political factors.

* Press release…

Ill. Rep. Kam Buckner (D-Chicago) and Ill. Sen. Ram Villivalam (D-Chicago) are co-sponsoring a bill to establish more transparent and equitable investment practices for state infrastructure expenditures. Transparency “will help ensure the most beneficial projects are selected every year, and taxpayers can easily understand the reasoning behind them,” according to a new report by the Illinois Economic Policy Institute.

Illinois’ historic capital bill passage in 2019 infused billions into state coffers, but taxpayers don’t currently have visibility into which transportation projects are funded and why. This opaque process erodes trust in government and misses an opportunity to garner the greatest public good from each infrastructure dollar. Meanwhile, our transportation outcomes show troubling trends: an increase in traffic crashes, particularly involving pedestrians, and people struggling to access jobs and services.

There is a better way to achieve greater transportation outcomes and public accountability; it’s performance-based planning, a commitment to using data to compare proposed infrastructure projects. Buckner and Villivalam’s bill would require the Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT) to use performance metrics in evaluating projects.

“Whether we want to improve a highway or update a train station, there are equity- and data-driven methods to guide our decision making,” said Ill. Sen. Ram Villivalam (D-Chicago), Chair of the Senate Transportation Committee.

Performance-based planning is akin to when automobile shoppers build a spreadsheet to compare one car model to another before purchasing. It’s not a strict playbook, but rather a flexible technique.

“This isn’t about any particular project,” said Ill. Rep. Kam Buckner (D-Chicago). “This is a simple, but consequential change: visibility. Billions of dollars shouldn’t be locked in a black box. We want to ensure we’re being accountable to our taxpayers across the region.”

IDOT has implemented successful reforms to some of its programs in the recent past. For example, IDOT reformed its State Planning and Research program by opening it up to a public call for projects and publishing the criteria it uses to evaluate projects. The state also established a new way to rank and select projects when it received funding from a new freight program created by Congress in 2016. Lastly, the General Assembly included a legislative requirement to transparently evaluate and rank projects competing for the Illinois Transportation Enhancement Program (ITEP), a joint federal-state program that provides funding for bicycle, pedestrian, and other projects that improve transportation. Transparent decision-making can promote access to jobs, improve safety, aid the environment, increase public health, advance equity, and offer multimodal choices.

“What you see on Google Maps is one thing, but the reality on the ground looks different,” said Rochelle Jackson, member of the North Lawndale Community Coordinating Council. “I spent two weeks documenting with a friend broken sidewalks, missing signs, and dangerous intersections in our neighborhood. These aren’t just inconveniences. They make it difficult to get to work, to live our lives.”

Performance-based planning is a best practice within the transportation industry, common in many states including Minnesota, Ohio, Kentucky, and Virginia. The Federal Highway Administration is strongly supportive of the practice.

“States with performance-based project selection systems are required to show how specific economic, safety, or maintenance needs are driving project selection,” said Mary Tyler, transportation policy analyst, Illinois Economic Policy Institute. “A performance-based program for project selection would ultimately give the public more confidence that these massive investments will deliver the best possible returns.”

In an era in which a pandemic further stresses our limited public dollars, the time is right for honest conversations. The stakes are high.

“Transportation investment is one of best tools Illinois has to attract and retain businesses to our state, but we can’t know which projects produce the best benefits without measuring how these projects impact economic growth, improve access to jobs, or reduce the costs of transportation,” said Tom Kotarac, senior vice president, Transportation and Infrastructure, Civic Committee of the Commercial Club of Chicago.

“I have lived next to roads like Pulaski, Cermak, Ogden, and Cicero, and there is a stark difference between walking and biking on these roads compared to other roads in Chicago. These differences impact the livability of my neighborhood and at times, severely impacted my mobility,” said Chicago resident Ruth Rosas.

Success looks different in different places. That’s why Buckner and Villivalam’s bill does not require IDOT to evaluate projects across the state the same way. Metrics will and should vary by geography.

“We want to make sure that every project is the best it can be at solving any given transportation problem in any part of the state, whether that is access to jobs, improved active transportation, or better freight connections,” said Audrey Wennink, director of transportation, Metropolitan Planning Council. “The beauty of performance metrics is that they allow us to get the most benefits out of our public dollars.”

Better infrastructure helps Illinois residents live better lives. Roads, bridges, trains, sidewalks, and bike lanes impact how people spend their time, and ultimately their access to opportunities. We can do more to improve people’s lives through transportation access and reliability by accounting for equity when making transportation decisions.

- Posted by Rich Miller        

  1. - Anyone Remember - Tuesday, Feb 23, 21 @ 2:51 pm:

    Unless the “detailed, apolitical criteria” is reviewed on a regular basis to accomodate changes (like, say, how does on get “gas tax” from an electric vehicle), politically inspired end runs will return. With a vengeance.

  2. - Amalia - Tuesday, Feb 23, 21 @ 2:54 pm:

    entities resist keeping a list of what needs fixing because they are afraid of liability. but lots needs to be fixed…or even cleaned…and not just building new.

  3. - 47th Ward - Tuesday, Feb 23, 21 @ 3:01 pm:

    If you own a home, you need to keep up with maintenance, even the stuff like foundations that you can’t see. If all you do is update the facade from time to time, the rest of your house will crumble.

    That’s sort of what Illinois has been doing with our routine maintenance and infrastructure. Now that the funding is in the so-called lockbox, let’s come up with a formula and process to spend it where it’s needed the most and does the most long-term good.

    And just because the MPC and Civic Committee peeps can afford to drive fancy electric cars doesn’t mean they’re wrong about this.

  4. - Yeah... - Tuesday, Feb 23, 21 @ 3:10 pm:

    Ask Sen. Durbin what happened at the federal level when they got rid of earmarks. It’s a bad idea. Without earmarks, you lose a lot of leverage to get members to vote for bills.

  5. - Joe Schmoe - Tuesday, Feb 23, 21 @ 3:14 pm:

    Sure don’t hear a word about a fare box increase.

  6. - Blake - Tuesday, Feb 23, 21 @ 3:25 pm:

    Re Amalia 2:54pm:
    If they fear liability, could the state exempt them from liability if they have put it in the priority list for completion. There could be different levels of priority allowed.

  7. - Scooter - Tuesday, Feb 23, 21 @ 3:26 pm:

    Illinois DOT’s Planning influence (on the type of multi-modal projects mentioned here) is apathetic at best. The agency formerly had a Chicago planning presence but these days all of those responsibilities are Springfield-based (and vacancies are hard to fill when they occur). The ongoing presence of Rauner holdovers & “acting” administrators isn’t helping either; there was optimism when this governor took office that the house would get cleaned and things would really start moving forward (especially with the possibility of a new capital bill), but so far very little of that optimism has been warranted.

    Would like to see more elected officials get behind this effort, as a kick to get the agency moving in the right direction.

  8. - Last Bull Moose - Tuesday, Feb 23, 21 @ 3:56 pm:

    I don’t see this as taking the politics out of the decisions. It should help frame the discussion.

  9. - Amalia - Tuesday, Feb 23, 21 @ 4:22 pm:

    @Blake, don’t think so. you point out a fault, you don’t fix it right way, liability headlight. maybe some lawyer experienced in this field can say more.

  10. - DuPage - Tuesday, Feb 23, 21 @ 4:56 pm:

    The Illiana expressway should have been built. It is needed to reduce some of the truck traffic that jams up the existing expressways.

  11. - Six Degrees of Separation - Tuesday, Feb 23, 21 @ 7:09 pm:

    Funny, the South Suburban Airport is alternately thought of as the worst project in Chicagoland or the best hope of bringing economic equity to the low income and minority population of the South Suburbs.

  12. - Joe Schmoe - Tuesday, Feb 23, 21 @ 7:48 pm:

    It all depends on who is paying the lobbyists’ paychecks….

  13. - DuPage - Tuesday, Feb 23, 21 @ 7:49 pm:

    @- Anyone Remember - Tuesday, Feb 23, 21 @ 2:51 pm:

    ===Unless the “detailed, apolitical criteria” is reviewed on a regular basis to accommodate changes (like, say, how does on get “gas tax” from an electric vehicle), politically inspired end runs will return. With a vengeance.===

    The state can’t even figure out how to require giant truck-cranes to pay to use the road like other trucks do. I suspect that is a political end run that will never go away.

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