DECATUR — The lawmaker up for re-election in the 48th Illinois Senate district in November, Andy Manar, D-Bunker Hill, says a capital spending bill is needed to fix the growing backlog of crumbling roads and bridges around Illinois, but his Republican opponent, Taylorville small businessman Seth McMillan, believes the state can't afford it.
"I think we need to figure out how to balance the budget, how to prioritize spending, and how to use the road fund properly before we create more debt," said McMillan, referring to the main bank account the Illinois Department of Transportation uses for road projects and other items. "To me that's where the conversation needs to start."
McMillan instead prescribes more modest changes to infrastructure spending by ending the budget practice of using Illinois' road fund for other measures, which lawmakers and recent governors have approved to fill holes elsewhere in the budget. "Bicycle paths, walking paths — projects like that that aren't related to the roads and bridges," he said. "The monies (in the road fund) come from taxes collected off of gasoline, so that's where I think it needs to be spent."
But Manar, who has been a principal budget negotiator in the Illinois Senate, said McMillan's plan to further restrict what items the road fund goes to simply blows another hole elsewhere in the state's spending plans.
"It's taking money away from other things in the state budget to pay for infrastructure, and I just think that's irresponsible," he said. If fixing the state's road problem was as easy as McMillan's plan, according to Manar, "it would've been done by now."
Even if lawmakers did reserve some extra $500 million specifically for road improvements, it would not be enough to maintain the road conditions today that have worried commercial shippers and frustrated residents, according to IDOT figures. State transportation officials estimated this year the state would need $1.7 billion more annually just to maintain roads and bridges at its current conditions.
Illinois has not seen a capital spending bill since 2009, when former Gov. Pat Quinn signed a $31 billion spending plan meant to provide an economic stimulus to the state then in the throes of the Great Recession. The program was funded in part by government bonds, the debt service of which state is still paying back.
Transportation advocates in Illinois have been sounding the alarm for several years that a lack of money dedicated to roads and bridges means IDOT has been able to get to fewer and fewer infrastructure, leaving to a growing number of roads and bridges across the state in a state of disrepair.
Illinois' failure to keep pace with the growing costs of maintaining roads is also affecting how much it can leverage funds from the federal government, according to Manar. "We're leaving tens, if not hundreds, of millions of dollars on the table from the federal government in matching grants," he said.
McMillan's position is that lawmakers must straighten out how the state appropriates money to different programs before they can consider selling more bonds to catch up with an infrastructure system in near crisis.
"If the state starts to make those sacrifices and makes an effort to pay down the backlog of bills, I think that sends a message to the business world and job creators that Illinois is getting serious about solving its financial problems," McMillan said.
Business groups like the Illinois Chamber of Commerce have also clamored for a capital plan, as shipping and commercial traffic on Illinois' roads becomes more burdensome and unreliable.
"There's no question that we need to invest more in surface infrastructure," Manar said. But the Bunker Hill senator did not say how big the capital plan would need to be. That, he said, would need to be based on what experts from state agencies say.