Vote NO on Proposed Transportation "Lockbox" Amendment

When you go to the polls November 8 (You are going to the polls, right? Get your shit together and register right now if you haven't already), if you live in the state of Illinois there is a down-ballot decision that will have lasting implications for transportation spending. You recently should have received a printed copy of the full wording of the amendment and arguments for and against. View a PDF of the mailing HERE.

You can learn what the supporters of the amendment tout as the values of the amendment to the citizens of Illinois; they've created a website SafeRoadsAmendment.com and are airing a TV commercial that both lay the dismal facts about Illinois transportation infrastructure bare: 4,200 bridges in "poor condition", 50% of roads in "poor condition", $6B in "road money swept away in the last 10 years" for other uses.

If those facts and video of traffic jams and potholes don't convince you, perhaps the photos of bridge collapses in Minnesota from 2007 will scare you sufficiently to prompt a yes vote. And what will a "yes" vote do, exactly? It will add Section 11 to Article IX (Revenue) of the Illinois Constitution, which effectively locks in any proceeds raised for use on transportation expenses for the explicit use of transportation expenses. It will keep legislators from diverting critical money for our failing infrastructure for other uses. And as visitors to the "yes" camp website will note from the cover page banner, protecting these funds will "Keep Illinois Safe".

Of course, nothing is ever as simple as it seems. It may seem reasonable to draw a straight line from secure transportation funds to safe roads, but potholes alone haven't caused the over 800 deaths from vehicular crashes in Illinois this year. And all those bridges and lane miles that are in bad shape? That didn't happen in just the past decade, the time frame in which the "yes" camp notes so much money was diverted for other uses.

I typically write too much so I'm going to cut to the chase today, but if you want to read more about the various arguments on either side of this issue check out the op-ed from the Chicago Tribune (which labels the amendment "diabolical"), from the Chicago Sun-Times, from Streetsblog Chicago, IllinoisPolicy.org, Progress Illinois, Governing.com, and Reboot Illinois.

Here are three key reasons why we think you should vote NO on this proposed amendment:

1. The constitution is not (or should not) be a primary budgeting tool. Transportation funds are not the only funds that have been raided to pay the State's mounting backlog of bills; education, human services, and more have been faced with cuts and broken contracts. Also, there are other "lockbox" amendments currently in the Illinois constitution -- perhaps you're familiar with our pension crisis? "The Illinois Supreme Court ruled in 2015 that public pensions were a constitutionally protected right. Their benefits, once promised, cannot be 'diminished or impaired.' That exact wording was in the constitution. And if the transportation lockbox question passes, transit funding could be just as untouchable as public pensions." (Source: Op-Ed by Reboot Illinois).

Even if we had a budget for FY17, the pie is only so big. The vast majority of that pie is already sliced up for mandated obligations. Adding a transportation lockbox amendment makes another slice of that pie untouchable, and does nothing to improve the odds that lawmakers will stop robbing other funds. So public schools, mental health and disability services, early childhood and senior care, parks and museums, will continue to be robbed for the state's mounting obligations. Don't give lawmakers an "out" that will make this any easier.

2. Without an accompanying "maintenance only" or similar clause we're guaranteed business as usual (forever?) from IDOT. It's one thing to recognize the system is underfunded. It's another thing entirely to tout the size of the system as a benefit in and of itself: from IDOT 2015 Annual Report, "Illinois boasts the nation’s third-largest road network with more than 146,700 lane miles of state and local roads, behind Texas and California, respectively...There are 26,667 bridges in Illinois, the third-largest inventory in the country." The same report lists a $600M interstate interchange project alongside a $500,000 protected bike lane on one stretch of one street in Chicago as though they are equivalent. Never mind that upon further digging that bike lane is the only exception to IDOT's ban on protected bike lanes on state-jurisdiction roads in Chicago, an exception that was made only after a biker was killed by a drunk driver on that stretch of road.

Further evidence that IDOT should not be given this guarantee of perpetual funds is found in recent reports that the Illiana Tollway project may not actually be dead, but is being strung along with court cases and back-room reworkings of environmental studies, in spite of continued evidence that this 47-mile, $3 BILLION project will not provide even enough economic benefit to cover its own construction.

Putting an amendment in our state's Constitution that guarantees untouchable funding for transportation is drawing a line in the sand and saying the trajectory and strategy of this division is acceptable. We do not believe IDOT is interested in sustainability, resilience, or place-sensitive context for their projects (note cover photo of IDOT project on South Main with its careful consideration for pedestrians). We will not support an amendment that rewards this behavior to the detriment of other vital services in our state.

3. There were lots of amendments proposed. Only this one made it through. Hmmm.... This year over 90 amendments were proposed to the Rules Committee of the state legislature. One that received considerable attention and had the potential to actually do lasting good for our state was the amendment to change the way legislative districts are redrawn; it received significant support throughout the state from a myriad of entities but was eventually overturned. The transportation amendment was the only one to make it through to the ballot. This could be indicative of unity across the aisle. Or it could be indicative of a very strong lobby that legislators are unwilling to oppose. After all, if more roads equal a stronger economy, who wants to turn that down? In proportion with the size of our road system, we're the third strongest economy in the nation, right? Hmmm...

This November 8 we strongly urge you to vote NO on this proposed amendment. Resist the urge to equate highway funding with safety. Transportation funding is not a constitutional issue. There are many questions that must be answered about the future of transportation in Illinois before it is written in stone, locked in perpetuity.