Ill. road fund being raided, transit group says

Illinois 'road fund' still paying for too many non-transportation costs, group says

Associated Press

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (AP) -- Taxes on gasoline and license-plate fees are among ways Illinois raises nearly $3 billion a year for road construction and repair. But transit advocates say too little of it is paying for concrete and steamrollers.

The Transportation for Illinois Coalition says there would be more "Road Work Ahead" signs on state highways if the road fund wouldn't finance $176 million for employee health insurance and $21 million for workers' compensation coverage in the budget year that begins July 1. Another $35 million from the account would go to another state agency for maintaining Illinois Department of Transportation buildings.

The coalition's quest: to reduce "diversions" from the road fund, administered by the Illinois Department of Transportation, by $100 million. That would result in an additional $500 million — and 14,000 additional jobs — over the next five years to keep up with deteriorating pavement, the group said.

Their plan is getting noticed.

"Road-fund money should be used for construction projects, not for day-to-day operational expenses," said Rep. David Reis, R-Willow Hill.

Gov. Pat Quinn's administration is firing back, defending the Democrat's efforts to limit road-fund diversions and answering the criticism by pushing his plans for overhauling the underfunded state pension system to save money in a budget crisis.

IDOT, like the rest of state government, has to try to catch up on pension payments because of years of politicians' short-changing of the system. Pension payments out of the road fund have jumped from $60 million five years ago to $172 million currently, according to Quinn budget spokeswoman Kelly Kraft. With no changes, that number will be $400 million in 2018.

"You can see what kind of impact that would have on the future health of the road fund," Kraft said. "That's why it is so important to deal with the pension issue."

IDOT has further softened the blow since the transportation coalition first spoke up. An IDOT document from March given to The Associated Press indicates the agency planned to pull $41.4 million out of the fund for workers' compensation. But Quinn's budget office now says the proposed number is $21 million.

The skirmish began last month when, in announcing its multiyear construction program, IDOT said it planned $1.75 billion in projects next year, a 40 percent drop from what went into building and repairing roads and bridges this year.

When coalition members investigated, they learned that no road-fund money is set aside for state highway work next year. IDOT later responded that there's $350 million in road-fund dollars for local construction projects, just not state highways.

Coalition member David Kennedy, executive director of the American Council of Engineering Companies of Illinois, said restoring $500 million over five years would not only cover thousands of new paychecks, it would reverse a trend in which by 2017, at current funding levels, one of every four miles of state roads would be in "unacceptable" condition.

The group wants state officials to spare $100 million in road-fund money by targeting the payouts for health insurance, workers' compensation and charges for building maintenance and other services from a sister agency, the Department of Central Management Services.

The road fund, fueled primarily by a 19-cents-a-gallon gasoline tax and vehicle registration fees, does pay for hundreds of millions of dollars in bond debts for previous construction projects and subsidizes the people who build them.

The account came under close scrutiny a decade ago when former Gov. Rod Blagojevich regularly dipped into it for general operating expenses — as much as $783 million in 2004, according to data compiled by coalition member Linda Wheeler, a retired IDOT administrator.

Diversions still totaled at least $499 million in the 2011 budget year, her data shows.

The road fund got some relief after 2009, when as part of a $30 billion capital construction program, the administration agreed to quit using the road fund to pay salaries for police officers from the secretary of state's office and the Illinois State Police — as much as $250 million.

"When that money was moved out of the road fund, we thought that was going to obviously free up some money," said Sen. John Sullivan, D-Rushville. "The secretary of state and state police, the salaries got moved out. What didn't get moved out was health insurance and workers' comp."

Kraft, the budget spokeswoman, acknowledged that while $121 million of road-fund money will cover insurance for IDOT's approximately 5,300 employees, $55 million will subsidize health care for other agencies.

But she said the workers' compensation payment would be $21 million for IDOT employee liability, not $41 million as proposed. That is down from the $120 million previously pulled out for workers' comp, and Quinn hopes to end health insurance diversions too, Kraft said.

Legislators such as Sullivan recognize that it's easy to talk about ending road-fund raids, but harder to find replacement revenue.

"There's been additional pressures put on the road fund simply because of the budget," Sullivan said. "If you stop those diversions, that creates a hole somewhere else and you have to try to fill that."

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John O'Connor can be reached at https://twitter.com/apoconnor

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