Vote “no” on the proposed constitutional amendment to create a “transportation lockbox”

Updated Oct. 10 with more examples of why this could be a problem. Updated Oct. 13 to include CMAP’s review of the amendment. I also posted an alternative version on my new Medium account

Illinois voters are being asked in the current election – early voting has started – to support or opposed a constitutional amendment that would restrict spending of certain revenue sources.

The amendment to the Illinois constitution says that revenues derived from transportation sources – gas and related taxes, license and registration fees, sales taxes for transit, airport fees – can only be used to fund transportation initiatives. (see full text below).

The problem this amendment intends to solve is that sometimes Illinois legislators spend transportation funds on non-transportation projects, people, and services, depending on their priorities at the time – even when existing laws says they can’t.

Your ballot says: “The proposed amendment adds a new section to the Revenue Article of the Illinois Constitution. The proposed amendment provides that no moneys derived from taxes, fees, excises, or license taxes, relating to registration, titles, operation, or use of vehicles or public highways, roads, streets, bridges, mass transit, intercity passenger rail, ports, or airports, or motor fuels, including bond proceeds, shall be expended for other than costs of administering laws related to vehicles and transportation, costs for construction, reconstruction, maintenance, repair, and betterment of public highways, roads, streets, bridges, mass transit, intercity passenger rail, ports, airports, or other forms of transportation, and other statutory highway purposes, including the State or local share to match federal aid highway funds.”

A “yes” vote means you want the Illinois Constitution to have this amendment.

A ChiHackNight member asked the #transportation channel in our Slack about this amendment.

Just got my copy of Proposed Amendment to the Illinois Constitution and bicycle and pedestrian paths are perhaps intentionally not listed as possible places to spend transportation tax revenue. Thoughts?

Very little (oh, so little) money is spent on bike and pedestrian things. Despite what you’ve read, there’s no way to guarantee that the recovered money – the small portion that’s being diverted – would be used to enlarge the pot spent on bike, pedestrian, or transit projects.

Existing laws dictate how the money is supposed to be spent

Many of the money categories in the amendment are already protected by either state or federal law. For example, the Passenger Facility Charge that each airline traveler pays to each airport on their itinerary can only be used on certain capital improvement and maintenance projects at that airport. The PFC differs by airport.

And just so we’re clear, there is no such thing as a “road tax” or “driving tax” in any part of Illinois. There is no fee for anyone to use the roads. What gas taxes are supposed to be spent on, first, and then allowed to be spent on, second, are defined in 35 ILCS 505/8 (from Ch. 120, par. 424). 

Bike lanes and sidewalks are rarely called out separately because they are part of streets and roads, which are funded, and I don’t think it’s significant that the constitutional amendment doesn’t list “bicycles” and “pedestrians”.

It’s up to IDOT and other agencies that have jurisdiction over a road to choose to include those things as part of larger road changes. This constitutional amendment won’t change any policies, which are already mildly supportive of bike and pedestrian infrastructure.

Priorities and policy makers are the problem

I oppose this on the grounds that it restricts setting state priorities while it doesn’t actually prioritize anything within transportation.

Sometimes there are things that are more important than what the state buys with transportation money.

I have a huge problem with those things it buys, though. The priorities that Illinois legislators have for spending transportation moneys isn’t going to improve.

The state built the MidAmerica-St. Louis airport in Mascoutah for $313 million to serve as a “secondary” airport to the St. Louis airport. It opened in 2000. There are only flights to tourist destinations in Florida; the St. Louis airport never had a capacity problem.

The Illinois Department of Transportation wants to extend the St. Louis light rail through rural areas for 5.3 miles, but is still obtaining funding. However, they are spending about $300,000 annually on something for this project.

Illinois budget line item screenshot

A screenshot of the Illinois FY17 enacted appropriations showing spending $330,010 annually for a project to extend a light rail station to an underused airport that cost the public $313 million.

That is exactly the kind of thing that has to stop and this amendment doesn’t do it. That money can still be spent on bad projects. There’s no shortage of bad projects, but there’s also no shortage of good projects that don’t get funded. States are already spending most of their money on new roads instead of maintaining existing ones.

Since projects are often selected and prioritized to serve political needs, and politicians oversee specific geographies, good projects will still linger in some geographies while bad projects are implemented in others.

In other words, the $300,000 on spending for the light rail extension to the underused airport can’t go to build pedestrian overpasses along well-used multi-purpose trails in DuPage County. It’s going to stay in that downstate legislator’s district because “economic development”.

Staff at the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, Chicagoland’s designated regional planning organization, issued a memo to the board a few days before I wrote this describing that the amendment is “unclear” on so many topics. They cite their discussions with unnamed amendment proponents who explain how the lack of clarity won’t be a problem because the General Assembly can pass laws clarifying that bike lanes won’t need a dedicated user fee if the amendment passes and that it doesn’t impinge on the rights of home rule cities to use gas taxes as they need to.

Spending is based on politics, not performance or need

With the amendment, the state will have to dream up some other transportation project in that district – I see a highway widening in their future. Without the amendment, the state could use that money for an important project in that area, but even that isn’t supposed to happen because the state already has laws dictating how project-specific bond funds can be spent.

This is also the problem with the Illiana Tollway that Governor Quinn so much wanted to build to gain favor with Southland legislators.

Whatever the case is, adhering more to performance (merit) measures on transportation spending – rather than political and district appeasement – is the most important change we can make.

It makes us inflexible

Finally, I question the amendment text. It’s hardly possible or easy for us non-legislators to know if the text covers everything that transportation funds are currently allowed to be spent on. What if there’s some project that turns out not to be an eligible recipient for these funds? Do we wait for the next election when we can get another constitutional amendment on the ballot, or hope that the Illinois Supreme Court will interpret the amendment to favor that project?

In fact, we already have a lot of laws that say how transportation-derived moneys are to be spent. The amendment, then, is a solution to the problem of trusting our state legislators.

The Civic Federation says that money is transferred from the various transportation funds to close budget gaps. “Limiting access to transportation-related revenues such as motor fuel taxes and motorist user fees could put additional strain on the State’s general operating resources” and “similarly affect local governments”. They also said that year-to-year figures of transfers and diversions have been calculated differently.

Additionally, DOT workers’ pensions may be paid for by transportation funds. Does this amendment cover that provision? If not, where else in the state’s budget would their pensions be funded?

Some of the work done by staff at other state departments is funded by some transportation user fees. Would the lockbox cut off their funding supply? A little of the work each department can be considered transportation related, but will the road lobby proponents of this amendment see it that way?

I dislike the inflexibility the amendment creates. Constitutions are meant to protect our rights. I don’t think that there’s a right that gas taxes must be used to pay for roads, while a sliver goes to build new CTA stations.

My writing partner at Streetsblog Chicago, John Greenfield, wrote an article that interviewed leaders at three transportation advocacy groups who were all in favor of the proposed amendment. The Tribune editorial he responded to is against it because it seems like a scam that the road lobby is promoting.

I am not in favor of the amendment.

Current madness of the week: investigating car crashes

Gravity should have prevented this car crash, as would not placing buildings near roadways. But we’ve figured out how to defy gravity. Photo by Katherine Hodges.

“Police closed the street to investigate”.

What a waste of time. The investigation will conclude the same way as any other, with one or more of the following contributing factors: exceeding the speed limit, alcohol, a deficiency in someone’s driving skills or knowledge, or some defect in the road (I’m excluding poor road design as it could almost always be better, designed in such a way to reduce the occurrence of poor quality driving).

The story: a person driving an SUV side swipes another SUV. The driver loses control and then hits the center concrete barrier. The SUV flips over and the driver dies. (Yes, this is in relation to an incident on I-294 in Glenview this weekend.)

We already know how to fix all of these issues.

Friday is final day for comments about Damen-Elston-Fullerton

Tomorrow, Friday, May 13, 2011, is the final day to email comments to Bridget Stalla, project manager for the Damen-Elston-Fullerton reconfiguration.

What should you do?

  1. Read an overview of the project and my analysis
  2. View photos of the posters at April’s open house to understand what will and won’t change
  3. Think of what you like or don’t like about the project
  4. Email your comments to Bridget: [email protected]
  5. Think about posting your comments here.

My draft comments

Here’s what I plan to email Bridget tomorrow:

  1. Bike lane on Damen – There should be a bike lane on Damen connecting the two ends north and south of Fullerton. Additionally, the bike lane should go THROUGH both intersections. See an example of a “through bike lane” in this photo. Too often bicyclists in Chicago are “dropped off” at intersections, left to fend for themselves and get caught in the same problems as automobiles. But automobiles and bicycles are different kinds of vehicles and need different treatments and direction.
  2. Roundabout – Was a roundabout considered for any of the three intersections? What were the results of this analysis? A modern, turbo roundabout should be given serious consideration for at least one of the three intersections.
  3. Curve and wide road on New Elston Avenue – On “New Elston Avenue” between Fullerton and Damen, there are two regular lanes and one bike lane in each direction. The widening of Elston was not justified. The high radius curve on New Elston Avenue on the east side of the project, and two regular lanes in each direction, will likely cause higher-speed traffic than bicyclists are used to on many roads on which they travel in great numbers. Automobile drivers speeding around the curve may enter the bike lanes. This is a good case for protected bike lanes at least on this part of the roadway.
  4. Removing the center island – Was removing the center island an alternative the project team considered?
  5. Queue backups caused by Fullerton-highway ramp intersection – The project area should be expanded to include the intersection to the west of the project area, at Fullerton/Kennedy ramp. Westbound drivers constantly and consistently block the Fullerton intersections with Damen and Elston while waiting to go through the signal at the highway ramp.

A bird’s eye view of the new configuration.

There used to be homes here

This is a testament to the destructive power of urban highways, be they tunneled, trenched, or elevated.

While biking through Chicago’s west side on Monday along the Congress branch of the Chicago Transit Authority Blue Line, my friend Tony remarked subtly on the “neighborhood” that lines the Eisenhower expressway (you call them highways or freeways):

There used to be homes on the other side of the street.

Indeed, there were homes across from the homes, like a typical neighborhood in any city. Or something useful and interesting for the neighborhood across the street that wasn’t 12 lanes of fast-moving automobiles and a rapid transit line, with all the noise, pollution, and crashes that comes with it.

Let’s not ever let this happen again; no more highways through neighborhoods.

HOT lanes and equity

The following is extracted from a paper I wrote about I-15 Express Lanes (first phase in 1998) and Managed Lanes (second phase, still under construction). Read the paper, Implementing value pricing on a highway in Southern California.


Political support is necessary for any value pricing application. Mayor Jan Goldsmith’s story of political maneuverings gave that indication. Implementing value pricing is politically difficult to implement because of the high opposition from the public. This is because of the costs borne by the user. In the case of I-15 Express lanes, all users have the opportunity to use the express lanes if they ride the bus, a motorcycle, ride with a friend or coworker, or drive an exempt low-emission vehicle. There are several tollways around the United States and the world which don’t have a free alternative.

Weinstein and Sciara (2006) suggest that we should avoid defining whether or not the HOT lane concept is equitable, but instead how to address perceived equity issues. The pair have written two reports for planners who will potentially work on value pricing projects. Both reports are cited in this section.

It has been found in the I-15 Express lanes application that users who never use the express lanes, and only use the main lanes (free lanes) occasionally benefit from the lane shift of users to the Express lanes. (Supernak, et al. 1998)

Another concern is that low-income drivers, who cannot afford to pay for the express lanes, will disproportionately benefit high-income drivers (Weinstein and Sciara 2006, 179). This debate between rich and poor drivers has emerged under the title of “Lexus lanes”, but the arguments calling HOT lanes a fast lane for the wealthy are unfounded:

a. Users from all income groups use the express lanes on I-15 and find it fair. The final report’s (Supernak 1999) attitudinal survey found that within all income groups, a majority of respondents approved of the FasTrak tolling of solo drivers in the I-15 HOV lanes.

b. As a mitigation measure to this perception, the Express lanes operation is paid for entirely by toll revenue, which also pays for increased express bus service. Oddly, though, Calfee and Winston (1996) found that the way toll revenues are used does not affect commuters’ willingness to pay (WTP), suggesting that these two mitigation measures do not affect public perception.

Works Cited

Calfee, John, and Clifford Winston. “The value of automobile travel time: implications for congestion policy.” Journal of Public Economics 69 (1998): 83-102.

Supernak, Janusz, Jacqueline M Golob, Kim Kawada, and Thomas F Golob. “San Diego’s I-15 Congestion Pricing Project: Preliminary Findings.” Institute of Traffic Studies, University of California, Irvine, Irvine, 1998.

Weinstein, Asha, and Gian-Claudia Sciara. “Unraveling Equity in HOT Lane Planning: A View from Practice.” Journal of Planning Education and Research 26 (2006): 174-184.

Great photo vantage points for trains

Urban expressways are a good way to divide cities and remove housing and businesses. But for the highways with trains running through or alongside them, they provide a clear view of the trains from above on an overpass or tall structure.

Here’s a collection of photos taken from above the tracks.

A Red Line train to 95th slows as it crosses under the 33rd Street overpass into the Sox-35th station.

A Blue Line train enters the portal at the Circle Interchange. Next stop: Clinton.

For many years, Metra showed TV commercials; slogan and jingle was, “Meeeetra, the way to really flyyyyy!” This train is being pushed into the Ogilvie Transportation Center.

Where are your favorite “railfan” vantage points?

Other overpasses in cities I like:

  • 97th and Park Avenue in Manhattan, New York. During rush hours, you’ll see a Metro North train every 30 seconds (or less, even).
  • Pedestrian overpass at Hiawatha Avenue and 24th Street East in Minneapolis where you’ll see the sleek Bombardier-built Metro trains. Another photo.
  • Numerous streets and pedestrian bridges over the Metra Electric lines in Chicago. During rush hour, the trains operate on a CTA-like schedule. Photo from 18th Street pedestrian bridge.
  • Roosevelt Road in the South Loop, Chicago, Illinois. You’ll see lots of Amtrak and Metra trains on 10 different tracks.

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