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Safer roads, more jobs require investment

Who’s happy about paying more in taxes? Not us. But thanks to the 2016 “lockbox amendment” to the state constitution, at least all new transportation taxes will go where they are needed most — improving roads, bridges and other transportation-related projects.

Illinois’ roads need repair and improvement — and that requires investment.

The public’s investment began Monday, when the state tax on a gallon of gasoline doubled, from 19 to 38 cents a gallon. There are a host of fee increases on vehicle titles and registration, with registration fees for conventional vehicles increased from $101 to $151. The price of a gallon of regular unleaded around the state now is near or, in many places, well above $3 a gallon.

Those are steep hikes, percentage-wise, and they will affect everyone who drives a vehicle in Illinois, along with a range of businesses that need to increase prices for consumers.

We take issue with the size of the tax increases. They are steep, although in the case of the motor fuel tax, they had not been adjusted in almost 30 years. We also are disappointed that our legislators continue to go down the path of more spending on the backs of taxpayers without devoting any significant effort to reducing the cost of government.

However, the motor fuel and vehicle registration taxes are the best way in the current environment to fund the majority of what is projected to be an almost $45 billion, six-year capital plan.

The motor fuel tax, collected by the state on each gallon of fuel sold, last increased in 1990. Since then, fuel efficiency among light-duty vehicles has increased about 25 percent, while inflation has whittled away the buying power of the tax dollars collected.

One reason the tax remained unchanged so long was that people worried — justifiably — that the money would be used by legislators for purposes other than transportation projects. That changed in 2016, when Illinois voters approved the “lockbox amendment” to the state constitution, which requires that money collected through taxes and fees on vehicles and fuel be spent on transportation-related projects.

The transportation piece of the capital plan calls for about $33 billion worth of road, bridge, rail and other transportation projects over six years. Some of these projects will be selected by the Illinois Department of Transportation, but money also will flow to counties, municipalities and townships, all of which will see their share of the fuel tax roughly double as well.

So no matter which roads you drive on, there should be improvement in years to come. The plans call for about $11 billion worth of projects funded by borrowing money (Illinois’ transportation bonds are better rated than its other bonds because they have a dedicated funding source) and another $9.5 billion in projects funded as the money is available.

The other part of the capital plan is for building projects, including at state facilities, education projects and environmental projects — and this one is less straightforward. The spending will be backed with revenue from opening new casinos in communities including Chicago and Rockford, legalized sports betting and a $1-a-pack increase in the cigarette tax.

The Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity will be charged with awarding grants for worthy projects around the state — and the opportunity seems ripe for money to be squandered on pet projects in favored lawmakers’ districts.

We’re not happy about paying more each year. Whether the revenue projections from new casinos and gambling expansion will live up to expectations remains to be seen, but we can rest assured that the extra money paid at the pump will be spent improving our transportation network, which has not seen significant investment in 10 years.

That will benefit for all of Illinois, by creating jobs, economic opportunity and safer roads.

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