JOLIET – These are not promising times for local highway improvements.
U.S. Rep. Bill Foster, D-Naperville, took a ride Monday around the Joliet area with two local officials to look at sites in need of federal spending.
The big problem, Foster said, is there may not be federal money to spend.
The federal government is running out of money to pay for road and bridge projects at the end of July. A vote is pending for July 31 on a federal highway bill. But Congress could opt for one-year of spending rather than a long-term bill Foster said is needed to pay for the type of projects needed to solve the truck congestion problem developing in Will County.
“Everyone agrees it should happen, except there are questions of how to pay for it,” Foster said of the national funding problem. On the local level, he said, it’s a matter of “dropping revenue and increased need.”
The obvious answer is to hike the federal tax on gasoline. Even Foster, who said long-term money is needed, would not commit to voting for a hike in the gas tax, although he said he is open to considering it.
Any funding shortfall in highway money complicates Illinois’ fiscal situation, since road spending in the state is heavily dependent on federal money.
Foster’s road tour included Will County Executive Larry Walsh Sr. and John Greuling, chief executive officer for the Will County Center for Economic Development.
Walsh said state transportation officials recognize the need for road improvements in Will County. Again, the problem is paying for it.
“They better realize that there’s going to be the need of hundreds of millions of dollars, if not billions of dollars, that we’ll need to be spending in Will County,” Walsh said.
Where money is needed
The tour focused on three areas likely to need federal highway dollars.
• A future Des Plaines River bridge at Houbolt Road with a new interchange at Interstate 80 to facilitate truck access;
• Widening of I-80 from New Lenox to Grundy County;
• A rebuilt I-80 interchange at Route 53.
All of these projects are promoted as ways to relieve traffic congestion in the Joliet area where a growing distribution industry is putting more trucks on the road and leading to clashes with everyday motorists.
Local officials would seek private investors for the Houbolt Road bridge, Greuling said. The project is seen as a toll bridge that would carry truck traffic into CenterPoint Intermodal Center-Joliet and get it off Route 53.
But Greuling said some public money could be needed for the bridge, and government money would definitely be needed to improve the I-80 interchange so it could handle the truck traffic anticipated for the bridge.
Joliet Mayor Bob O’Dekirk, who was not on the tour but is pushing the Houbolt Road bridge as an answer to the city’s truck congestion problems, agreed a new interchange is needed.
“I think ultimately you probably need that, and you probably need the road widened on I-80, as well,” said O’Dekirk, who views the project as a public-private venture.
The state is beginning engineering studies for future lane additions on I-80 from New Lenox to Grundy County. But Greuling said money has not been committed to the construction work.
Greuling also said I-80 will need to be widened for the Houbolt Road bridge to function as intended and to avoid bottlenecks on the interstate.
“One of the issues with the bridge is, if you build the bridge without widening I-80, what have you accomplished?” Greuling asked.
Grueling said a new interchange also is needed at Route 53 and I-80. He pointed to narrow viaducts on Route 53 near the interchange and big curves on the access ramps that make them dangerous for truckers.
“It’s essentially designed for 1965, and a federal bill would go a long way to funding the rebuilding of that interchange,” Greuling said.
The gas tax
Federal highway revenue is funded with a gasoline tax of 18.4 cents a gallon. That does not include separate state and local taxes on gasoline, which also are often dedicated to road projects.
The gas tax was last increased in 1993. Foster said its value of that 18 cents is being eaten away by inflation. Also, reduced use of gasoline through fuel efficiencies and a switch to electric cars cuts into revenue available for highway projects, Foster said.
“We have to look at a long-term solution that addresses both problems,” Foster said.
But Congress will vote in less than three weeks on a highway bill, and the only possible solution Foster suggested was a hike in the gas tax. He did not say if he would vote for it and suggested it is likely to come down to a political battle.
“I’m not rejecting it out of hand,” Foster said. “I want to see a bipartisan effort.”