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The SRA is well intentioned, but poor public policy, using an improper legislative and legal mechanism
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October 31, 2016
 

 

APA-IL Legislative Alert

Legislative Committee
American Planning Association – Illinois Chapter

 

VOTE NO ON THE SAFE ROADS CONSTITUTIONAL AMENDMENT:

IT’S WELL INTENTIONED, BUT POOR PUBLIC POLICY, USING AN IMPROPER
LEGISLATIVE AND LEGAL MECHANISM
 
This November, Illinois voters will have the opportunity to amend the Illinois Constitution to prohibit state transportation revenues from being spent on non-transportation items. Responding to an inquiry from the membership, the APA-IL Legislative Committee has composed the following analysis of the Safe Roads Amendment (SRA).
 
Amendment Summary
The following summary of the SRA will be on the ballot in November: "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. You are asked to decide whether the proposed amendment should become part of the Illinois Constitution."
 
Support and Opposition Organizations
The primary advocate supporting the SRA is Citizens to Protect Transportation Funding. This committee is largely funded by trade associations, companies, and unions affiliated with highway construction. A full list of donors is available at Illinois Sunshine.
 
The Legislative Committee has been unable to find any organized opposition to the SRA.
 
Issues of Interest to the APA-IL
  1. Will the SRA prohibit the use of state transportation revenues for bicycle and pedestrian projects?
  2. Will the SRA help or harm efforts to improve multimodality and sustainability in our state's transportation network?
  3. Is the SRA the appropriate mechanism for securing transportation funding?

Discussion of Issues
1. The ballot question reserves transportation funding for certain enumerated types of non-automobile transportation: mass transit, intercity passenger rail, ports, and airports. The ballot question also mentions "other transportation" but does not specifically enumerate bicycles and pedestrians. Will the SRA prohibit the use of state transportation revenues for bicycle and pedestrian projects?
 
The answer is likely--though not definitively--"no". In a recent statement, Ride Illinois announced "[W]e have investigated the omission and its potential impacts on bicycling with the Illinois Department of Transportation, our top legislator ally, and the organization that developed the wording. Each assures us that bicycling falls into the “other transportation” categories in the language – thus keeping the door open for continued state transportation funding for bicycling." Similarly, Active Transportation Alliance writes that while "[u]nfortunately, the current ads promoting the amendment are all about road building and maintenance, which has led many to believe it has no benefits for biking, walking and transit," ATA has "encouraged the leaders of the campaign to emphasize the active transportation benefits to Chicagoland voters, and they’ve initially agreed to do so."
 
In short, while the text of the SRA fails to specifically enumerate walking and biking among the transportation modes it will fund, informed advocacy groups are confident that the SRA will not prohibit the use of state transportation revenues for bicycle and pedestrian projects.
 
2. Every year, APA-IL members make great strides in improving their local transportation networks. Whereas much of the focus of 20th century transportation planning was directed towards automobiles alone, the 21st century has seen an increase in attention towards transit, bicycles, pedestrians, Complete Streets, and more. Will the SRA help or harm continued efforts to improve multimodality and sustainability in our state's transportation network?
 
There is no clear cut answer.
 
Several organizations assert that the SRA is the best tool for advancing multimodality and sustainability goals, despite its imperfections. Metropolitan Planning Council senior fellow Jim Reilly, arguing that the SRA could support future efforts to increase transportation funding, says "Right now if people ask, ‘Can you be sure this will be used for that purpose,’ well, the answer is no." Active Transportation Alliance's Kyle Whitehead writes that "Illinois spends far too much money on projects that add vehicle capacity to roads, which leads to more driving, more congestion and more sprawl. That won’t change with this amendment so we’ll need to keep fighting, but we’d be fighting for a bigger piece of a larger pie."  Ride Illinois asserts that "the overall impact of the proposed Safe Roads Amendment is that it should help bicycling by preserving more transportation dollars overall," and that advocacy groups will "continue to push for more of those dollars to be spent on bicycling infrastructure, programs, and education."
 
However, these feelings are not uniform throughout the planning world. Charles Marohn of Strong Towns, speaking to individuals hoping to fund transit, pedestrian, and cycling improvements out of increased state and federal disbursements, suggests that "the cost of getting anything you want is going to be expansive funding to prop up the systems that hurt the viability of transit, biking and walking improvements. Every dollar you get is going to be bought with dozens of dollars for suburban commuters, their parking lots and ‘drive throughs’ and their mindset continuing to oppose your efforts at every turn."Active Transportation Alliance criticizes IDOT's 2017-2022 Proposed Highway Improvement Program for "misplaced priorities", arguing that "it's clear new highway capacity in urban areas like ours leads to more driving, more congestion, and development patterns over time that discourage and deemphasize walking, biking, and transit."
 
3. Without question, dedicated transportation funding advances a whole range of planning goals throughout the state. Roads need to be repaired, bicycle and sidewalk networks need to be expanded, and transit service needs to be strengthened in communities upstate and down. None of these goals can be achieved without substantial funding.
 
Notwithstanding the importance of these goals, the SRA is an improper tool with which to achieve them. The budget demands our communities face are so varied and widespread that constricting any funding/spending relationship may cause more harm than good. The legislative process guarantees that transportation funding--important though it may be--is properly balanced against other needs facing our state. As the Chicago Tribune opines, "Budgeting for bridges doesn't belong in a constitution. It's a key but routine goal that governors, members of the General Assembly and local governing bodies can enforce on their own."
 
Furthermore, the SRA as drafted is more restrictive than similar provisions in other states. As four legislators wrote in an op-ed opposing the amendment, "Other states that have passed transportation funding lockboxes, such as Maryland, have release valves for emergencies. There, the governor and a supermajority of legislators can declare a fiscal emergency. In that instance, the threshold for tapping into transportation funds for general purposes can only be reached when there is broad consensus for the need to do so. The proposed Illinois amendment is missing a safety valve."
 
Summary of Issues and APA Illinois’ Position
The SRA likely continues to accommodate bicycle and pedestrian funding out of state transportation revenues.
 
Whether the SRA will help or harm efforts to improve multimodality and sustainability is unknown. It is possible that the SRA will increase opportunities for active and sustainable transportation funding by limiting the transferability of transportation revenues. It is also possible that the SRA will further entrench an existing spending pattern that prioritizes road capacity expansion over cycling, walking, and transit, making reforms in this area more difficult.
 
Finally, the SRA is an inappropriate tool for securing adequate transportation funding. The existing legislative process gives our state flexibility in balancing all of its funding sources and needs, and there is no good reason to insulate transportation funding from this process.
 
The SRA is—at best—a mixed bag. We believe the SRA is presented through the good intention of its drafters and supporters, but we also believe that the issue of transportation funding allocation is very complex. The complexity of the issue does not lend itself to a simple constitutional amendment that risks unduly binding the hands of policymakers and planners, and resulting in unintended consequences favoring some forms of the transportation network over others.
 
These uncertainties and severity of the constitutional amendment mechanism lead the APA-IL to encourage its membership to vote NO on the SRA.
 
For more information, please contact David Silverman, AICP (312-604-9117) or Ben LeRoy (217-403-8800)
Click here to find your Illinois legislators
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