By JAMES M. SWEENEY
President/Business Manager, Operating Engineers Local 150
While politics is sometimes a tenuous and frustrating world in which to operate, as the old saying goes, “if you’re not at the table, you’re on the table.” And as I have often reminded the membership, elections have consequences.
Many of you remember that Illinois’ last large capital plan – Pat Quinn’s $31 billion “Illinois Jobs Now” – was exhausted just before Bruce Rauner took the reins as governor. Illinois suffered in many ways during the four long years of Rauner’s term, but one that hit home hardest for many of our members was his willingness to hold infrastructure hostage to ideological demands that would never be met, and the resulting absence of any meaningful state road or bridge work.
For four years, members in the western districts in Illinois saw Illinois Department of Transportation lettings with nothing for them. But as I said, elections have consequences.
Last month, half a decade of our political strategy culminated with the passage of Illinois’ largest-ever investment in transportation infrastructure. With massive bipartisan support, a six-year $45 billion capital plan hit Governor Pritzker’s desk, with around $33 billion of that allocated to roads, bridges and transit.
NO EXPIRATION DATE
The beauty of the legislation behind this plan is that the infrastructure funding is not limited in duration. Unlike previous plans that borrowed money to make a big spend over the course of a few years, the new revenue for roads and bridges does not expire.
After 29 years of stagnation, Illinois increased its motor fuel tax and indexed it to keep up with inflation in future years. This move, along with increases in registration and licensing fees, will bring in almost $2 billion in new revenue each year.
Infrastructure investment is critically important for several reasons.
- First and foremost is ensuring the safety of the people who drive it every day.
- Next comes the fundamental foundation of our regional economy, rooted in our status as a national transportation hub.
- Finally, supporting these first two items results in good-paying careers for local workers. Every sector of the economy benefits from infrastructure investment.
WHY THE GAS TAX?
More than 30 states have increased their gas taxes over the past decade. The gas tax is a user fee, charging the people who use the roads to contribute toward their upkeep. It is not only the most fair method but also the one most suited to provide adequate revenue over the long term. We’ve known for many years that the only way to ditch the band-aid approach to our infrastructure was to increase the gas tax.
Increasing taxes is never a popular endeavor, especially given Illinois politicians’ history of raiding the road fund and diverting its scarce resources to pet projects. After all, why would anyone pay more in taxes when the existing money that is supposed to serve that purpose is being squandered elsewhere?
This question is where the Illinois Safe Roads Amendment was born. In 2016, we spearheaded the movement to amend the Illinois Constitution to ban diversions from the road fund. We helped put the question on the ballot, and ran a statewide campaign with the help of industry partners that saw nearly 80 percent of voters support the effort.
A landslide result like this for a constitutional amendment is almost unheard of. Now that these resources would no longer be diverted, it was time to give the road fund the revenue it needed to actually make a difference in the condition of our infrastructure.
Much like Indiana, where the failure of the Interstate 65 bridge over the Wildcat Creek sparked a public outcry for infrastructure funding, the failure of a bridge here in Illinois brought this issue to the forefront this year. When beams supporting the heavily trafficked Lake Shore Drive bridge just south of the Chicago River cracked in February, closing it for a full day, the eyes of the public were focused on the cost of failing bridges.
UNION TAKES ACTION
Our union took swift action to show everyone how many other bridges were on the brink of catastrophe. We rented billboards to notify the public of the hazardous condition of the bridges they were driving across. People were upset, and rightly so. They took an interest and demanded action.
A reporter who worked with us on a story on the Interstate 80 bridge over the Des Plaines River in Joliet told me that her newsroom gave her the freedom to do as many bridge stories as she could because they were attracting more attention than any other stories in the news.
We were aggressive in our political approach, pushing hard for road and bridge funding when it seemed like a larger capital bill might not come together in time to pass during this legislative session. A bipartisan coalition of legislators who we had discussed a fuel tax increase with for several years stood ready to move, and as the hours of the session ticked down, Governor Pritzker was able to attract enough votes to add capital construction – schools, museums and other state-owned buildings – into the mix for the largest capital plan in Illinois’ history. This was a truly historic moment for Illinois.
I have heard from some people who don’t like the idea of a higher gas tax, and if the glaringly dangerous condition of our roads and bridges this winter wasn’t enough to convince everyone of the need for this investment, I would ask them to look back less than a decade into our own history.
A LOOK BACK
Illinois’ last capital bill passed in 2009, just as the bottom completely fell out of just about every construction sector, as our membership experienced hardships unseen in generations. In any recession, public construction can keep a workforce and an economy afloat, and that capital bill was nearly the only thing generating work in the depths of the Great Recession.
Right now, our out-of-work lists are at extreme lows. We are making apprentices as fast as we can, and almost every retiree who wants to come back to work has been able to do so. We are doing everything we can to keep up with demand, but good times never last forever.
Our economy is still in the longest bull market in history, but every economist I have spoken to as a benefit fund trustee agrees that a recession is likely only a year or so away, and nobody is quite sure of how bad it will be or how long it will last. Having this plan in place will protect our membership from the worst of a recession.
Local 150 has never relied on luck. We get in the trenches and slug it out to control our own destiny. We worked tirelessly for the past five years to bring this day to fruition, and it is something that should be celebrated by every man, woman and child who travels on – or works on – these roads and bridges.
Larger IDOT lettings will begin to pop up at the end of this year, and by next year, we will see the almost $2 billion in new annual revenue go to work not only in the form of larger construction lettings, but also in the planning and engineering of major work that will take years to come together. Because this revenue stream is indefinite, IDOT will finally be able to plan for the future with a realistic expectation of how much money will be there in years to come.
When I say that politics are a necessity for this union, you can see why. Construction plans this big don’t just fall from the sky, and those who sit idly and wait for good things to happen will always be left with scraps. We went out and fought for this, and every Illinoisan will be safer for our efforts.