DECATUR — Central Illinois community leaders pleaded for state investment in the region’s infrastructure on Monday, but lawmakers found few answers when seeking ideas about how to pay for those needs.
Members of the state Senate Subcommittee on Capital met Monday at Hickory Point Banquet Facility in Decatur for the second of five hearings around the state aimed at hearing local construction needs — such as the resurfacing of U.S. 51 in Decatur.
“I cannot emphasize how much I hear about the poor conditions of this major roadway into our community,” Decatur Mayor Julie Moore Wolfe told the committee. “It is a constant issue my council members face when we’re out talking to residents. It is a constant concern.”
Illinois needs $13 billion to $15 billion over 10 years for the maintenance of existing roads and bridges, according to the state Department of Transportation. Another $30 billion is needed for upgrades and improvements to aviation, public transit, freight and passenger rail and new highways, the department’s acting secretary said earlier this month.
Lawmakers generally favor a major investment in the state’s infrastructure, but methods of paying for a capital bill remain more controversial. Sen. Martin Sandoval, D-Cicero, pressed speakers Monday afternoon as to whether they would support a plastic bag tax or a increased motor fuel tax to fund the work.
The state’s motor fuel tax costs drivers 19 cents for every gallon pumped. It has been flat since 1990.
Moore Wolfe and Macon County Chairman Kevin Greenfield both expressed concerns that the proceeds of any tax increase make it back to the county.
“One of the things that worries people in my community when taxes like this are proposed, is that will Decatur, Macon County, will we get our fair share of that tax revenue?” said Moore Wolfe, noting that she was speaking for herself and not the rest of the city council.
She highlighted spending needs that include the Macon County Beltway Project, a 22-mile loop around the eastern and southern edges of Decatur. But Moore Wolfe pointed out that the city and county have already made their own investments in the long-awaited project, seen as a key to the area's economic development.
“To date, over $500,000 in local funds have been used to match federal grants to do the feasibility study and Phase I engineering,” she said.
Representatives from communities and organizations outside Macon County also highlighted their needs during the three-hour hearing. The problems have been heightened by increasing costs for maintenance and decreasing state motor fuel tax dollars as vehicles have become more efficient.
Tazewell County engineer Craig Fink said the motor fuel tax revenue stream could only afford to maintain four miles of county highway in 2014, for every 10 miles it had maintained in 2000. “As a result, maintenance on local roads is being deferred every year, and sometimes even suspended entirely,” he said.
Piatt County engineer Eric Seibring said even in 2019, the county has dirt roads.
Seibring said the motor fuel tax allotment in 2000 was $330,000 for the county. In 2018, the allotment was $280,000, a $50,000 decrease — after a 248 percent maintenance cost increase.
He said the county's focus is on road preservation, rather than building new roads.
“The major focus is on how to extend what we have,” Seibring said. "Without proper maintenance what system will we have left?"
Other Macon County projects
In Decatur, another top priority for the city is to construct a railroad overpass and interchange at Brush College Road and East Faries Parkway, as train traffic is estimated to block this crossing up to 24 hours per week. An engineering contract is expected to have an execution goal of November 2020.
Construction of a new rail overpass at the east side of the Norfolk Southern rail yard is much needed, as Moore Wolfe described the current underpass as “functionally obsolete” and as the “scariest underpass in the world.”
A recent fatal accident has also added to the need of redesigning the entrance to Tate & Lyle on Illinois 105, she said.
The city of Decatur has implemented a five-cent gas tax and a one cent diesel tax, creating revenue for a $7.5 million program used to address deteriorating city streets, Moore Wolfe said. The county has maximized the transportation levies and dedicated almost $400,000 annually to fund a portion of the work needed for the Beltway Project, she said.
The city of Decatur is able to improve about 7.5 miles of road per year, Wolfe said, “but we don’t get enough money from the state.”
Greenfield said the county board has levied taxes as high as they can, and money is set aside to go toward reconstructing a bridge on Reas Bridge Road.
“We are about $7 or $8 million short,” he said. “It’s vital, but IDOT could shut us down at any time. We’re really under the gun here.”
The next hearing 3 p.m. April 8 at Bradley University in Peoria.