Illinois Capital Bill Faces Bumpy Road

May 6, 2019

1929 was a busy year.

The first car radio is made, sunglasses were invented, Switzerland invented the chainsaw, London installed the first public telephone booth, the first Academy Awards honoring film industry achievement were given out, and Popeye sailed into comic strips.

Locally, after two years of construction, the US 60/62 bridge opened over the Mississippi River connecting Illinois and Missouri.

It was built as a result of the federal Bridge Act of 1906.

After 90 years and thousands of vehicles crossing it every day, things can wear out.

“There’s about 3,000 vehicles a day on this bridge - 26% trucks - there’s a lot of movement. It is the shortest path between southeast Missouri and Paducah, Kentucky, so we do get a lot of traffic coming up this way.”

Casey Teckenbrock is IDOT’s Bridge Maintenance Engineer for District 9. He has about 800 bridges and another 1,200 small structures to inspect and maintain.

Every year, IDOT closes the 60/62 bridge and inspects every inch of it - looking for cracks, rust, and other signs of wear and tear.

Federal regulations require bridges over 20 feet long to be inspected every two years unless there’s a significant reason to inspect more often like a low sufficiency rating.

“As the bridges get older and deteriorate, if they’re not being replaced, we do get more frequent inspections, we get more hands-on inspections, we look at those problems to make sure they're not getting to an uncomfortable level.”

And if they don’t pass that inspection, those problems reach and uncomfortable level.

“If a bridge is truly unsafe through the inspection and the bridge office, we will close it or we will post it, so we don’t have unsafe bridges open to the public.”

Illinois has more than two million miles of highways spread across the state, and that requires a lot of maintenance and sometimes replacing.

“We have a lot of deferred maintenance, we have over $15 million - I mean $15 billion - I’m sorry, we have over $15 billion in deferred maintenance out there, that’s just repairing pot holes and some roads that are in current need of maintenance and that does not include any new construction so we have a lot of work to do.”

State Senator Dale Fowler (R-Harrisburg) is hopeful the 101st General Assembly approves a state capital bill which will prioritize improvement projects like major renovations to bridges, roads water and sewer systems - also called horizontal infrastructure.

“The Capital Bill is obviously a very hot subject right now, there’s working groups working throughout the state of Illinois about what some of the needs are right now.”

One project that’s on the eye of state and federal legislators is adding an additional interchange near Benton’s Industrial Park in Franklin County, to have direct access to I-57.

Mincon recently purchased a shuttered 400,000 square foot factory in the park, and plans to expand its line of industrial drilling products.

Congressman Mike Bost (R-Murphysboro) held an infrastructure listening tour in April that included a stop in Benton.

“I was here earlier today we meet with a whole group that we’re working on trying to talk about getting the intersection together out here that we’re talking about and the infrastructure bill and working on that, those are the things Washington can do to make that investment into our local communities so that they can do what is vitally important and that is providing opportunity for entrepreneurs to come in.”

Currently, everything that leaves the industrial park has to go through the city of Benton, and advocates for the new interchange say the direct access will lessen the traffic wear and tear on the city and make the industrial park more desirable for new businesses.

Bost says Illinois could get some federal help once a state capital bill is completed.

“If they pass the infrastructure their capital bill that always gives them the opportunity to tap into those resources if the federal government comes up with an infrastructure bill.”

However, there’s one big obstacle facing the General Assembly.

“Most importantly, you know that capital bill is going to have to be funded, so that’s something that we as legislators are going to have to continue to work with the governor’s office on to see what we can do for the funding.”

Fowler says he’s heard a lot of ideas being floated around the capital to generate revenue, but nothing's ready for a vote yet.

“There’s no question were going to need revenue, the question is how are we going to attain those revenues, motor fuel tax is something is going to be on the table, such as the graduated income tax, the bag tax, all this tax this tax that, so there’s going to be some tough votes to be made in the Illinois Senate and House of Representatives, but before I make any, any, any indication, I’m always cautious because I want to see the language, because language can change.”

The motor fuel tax in Illinois has stayed the same since 1991 at 19-cents a gallon and Fowler has heard numerous increases suggested.

“Obviously that’s something that’s being discussed as we speak, I have not seen any language on it yet other than speculation, I’ve heard anywhere from 12 or 13 cents as high as 30 cents.”

Fowler says he knows those tough votes to increase any type of tax can also have a negative impact on his district.

“We live in a depressed, impoverished area here in southern Illinois, we have a lot of needs and when you start increasing taxes it takes more money out of the pocket of those who are trying to feed their families, but by the same token we have to continue to operate southern Illinois, we've lost many people - 45,000 people we lost last year - we're probably going to lose more this year, we have this out migration.”

Over the last few years Illinois population has declined more than the previous year.

Fewer taxpayers typically means prices and taxes will start to increase, along with reductions in services.

Fowler says a capital bill could help turn that around by creating jobs and developments to make people want to come to Illinois for work and leisure.

“We do this by creating opportunities to bring people in, such as a river terminal project that will create a lot of jobs, a lot of ancillary businesses that will come in, create our tourism dollars, make southern Illinois a place where people want to come in and build a home and establish residency and raise a family.”

In 2018, the state approved one million dollars to start on the design and engineering of a river port terminal in Cairo. Fowler says this would create a boost to the region’s economy.

“We get this terminal built in Cairo there’s going to be a need for even more trucks, but we’ll also be able to transport containers, coal, liquid grain, aggerate via barge which is our most economical form of transportation, so that’s really exciting, its projected that this project will benefit I-64 south.”

Fowler says there’s a lot of companies interested in using the terminal once completed and Cairo is the best place for it.

“We have the confluence of the Mississippi and the Ohio that doesn’t exist in the entire nation and what really opened up the gates for me is when I really started to study this and working with consultants and engineers and architects about this project that 80% of all inland barge traffic flows by the city of Cairo and the state of Illinois hasn’t been benefiting from that.”

There’s also vertical infrastructure that’s included with the capital bill which covers building renovations and new construction.

Most of the state-funded colleges and universities have a deferred maintenance plan, and SIU is no exception.

“The deferred maintenance there continues to grow and you what’s happened to the university, we’ve lost some enrollment, we have to change that moral and we have to continue to be proud of what we have and be able to assure our kids right here in southern Illinois and throughout the Midwest that they can come to SIU and have a great education.”

Fowler says the longer this deferred maintenance has to wait, it will be worse when it can be fixed

“It’s imperative that we keep funding, we have capital funding so we can continue with these deferred maintenances, because if you keep holding off its going to cost more later.”

Even the parks in Illinois have a deferred maintenance plan.

“Our parks have been neglected our state parks, which are a huge economic engine to southern Illinois, our tourism and I want to make sure that they continue to receive the funding and deferred maintenance for those parks.”

Lawmakers across the state are busy surveying the needs in their district and preparing to work on the capital bill, Fowler is doing the same.

“I’m compiling my wish list of things I want to make sure that our state facilities in our district, our parks and everything, our roads, our infrastructure, that we’re not left behind when and if those funds become available.”

Whether it’s a gas tax, bag tax, graduated income tax, state fee increases, funds have to be generated from somewhere.

Senator Fowler wants the 59th district to know how he plans to vote.

“I’m going to be very cautious on any vote that I make that would be a possible tax increase, because I represent my district and I want to do what’s best for my district and I want to do what’s best for my morals that I believe in for my district.”