Chicago and the rest of Illinois has some of the poorest bridges in the country. There is a controversial proposed solution to fix the deteriorating bridges
By Edwin Vega and Yanira Vazquez
In January, Lake Shore Drive gave daily commuters a scare that forced city and state officials to re-examine the poor conditions bridge and road infrastructures are currently in.
A large crack on a steel beam on the Lake Shore Drive bridge over Randolph Street brought traffic to a halt for a few days as Illinois Department of Transportation workers made temporary repairs.
The Lake Shore Drive bridge incident refocused concerns about bridge conditions not only in Chicago but the state of Illinois as well.
According to 2017 data compiled by the U.S Department of Transportation, of the 26,775 bridges in Illinois, 2,224 bridges, about 8.3 percent, are in poor condition. Illinois ranks fourth in the nation with the most poor bridges in a state, behind Oklahoma (2,684) Pennsylvania (4,147) and Illinois neighboring state Iowa (4,805) while other neighboring state, Missouri, is right behind Illinois as the fifth worst state (2,080).
Other neighboring states also carry high numbers of poor bridges including Indiana (1,368) and Wisconsin (1,112).
Alexa Corona, a senior at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC), heard about the incident from a friend who drives on the Lake Shore Drive bridge regularly. Corona believes that the city of Chicago does not pay attention to transportation infrastructure until “it actually becomes a problem”.
“It could have been fixed a long time ago, it’s usually just ignorance by the city” Corona stresses. “The state always say they don’t have money for things. This is important, I mean you’re not going to let this go until it cracks. Illinois has the worst problems with [bridges] I mean I think about it every time I’m driving over a bridge, especially when I’m driving over water because if something happens that’s it.”
Cook county has 206 poor bridges, more than any other county in Illinois. The second highest poor bridge county is Peoria county. However, between the two counties there is a drastic 129 bridge differential with Peoria having 77 poor bridges. Every other county in Illinois has 72 poor bridges or lower.
Bridges in Chicago and the rest of Illinois are inspected regularly. States must follow a 48-month inspection policy for all bridges according to the Federal Highway Administration’s website. Bridges that are passed are used for life, according to DePaul University public policy professor Dr. Joseph Schwieterman, an expert in the fields of transportation and urban planning. He said that the inspections lose their effectiveness.
Interactive Google Map above shows the amount of bridges in poor condition in every Illinois county.
“There’s so many unpredictable things that can happen, particularly structural compromises in the steel don’t often pick up with the inspection” Schwieterman said. “But you’re still rolling the dice. And that’s what we’re seeing around the country. Bridges that passed inspections suddenly go down.”
Schwieterman calls this rolling the dice and the unpredictable bridge conditions the “boogie man.”
According to the city of Chicago’s 2019 budget overview, issued to the public by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, in Chicago there are two types of funding that are heavily used for bridge maintenance: the vehicle tax fund and the motor fuel tax fund. The primary source of revenue for the vehicle tax fund are vehicle stickers. For the motor fuel tax fund, its primary revenue comes from a $0.19 per gallon tax on gasoline. This funding also supports other transportation costs like street lighting and road salt costs.
According to the Illinois Road and Transportation Builders Association (IRTBA), all levels of government needs to spend $105 billion per year to maintain and improve the condition of roads and bridges.
The 2019 budget overview shows that the motor fuel tax fund generated $67.4 million in 2018, roughly about 8.5 percent of the 2018 year-end budget of $787.8 million. $214.1 million did, however, come from the vehicle tax fund which makes up 27 percent of the 2018 year-end budget, however, it was a decrease from 2017’s vehicle tax fund of $246.3 million. There was also a decrease in the motor fuel tax fund with $72.1 million from the overall $746.8 million budget in 2017, which decreased to $67.4 million from the $787.8 million budget in 2018.
INTERACTIVE CHART: CLICK HERE TO SEE MORE ABOUT THE TAX CHART
There have been proposals by Illinois state legislatures to raise the gas tax, which hasn’t been done in Illinois since 1990.
Abigail Pawletki, a recent graduate from Northeastern University, opposes the idea of raising the gas tax.
“We already have high gas prices. There are so many other things they could tax or even cut back on and they would have the budget” Pawletki said. “Creating more casinos and legalizing marijuana would be a smarter start than raising gas prices higher than what they already are.”
Corona says about the gas tax “I’m against it. If you look at some of these officials and what they’re getting paid, they don’t want to dig in any of their pockets but they want to dig into our pockets. This is why we are losing the population in the state of Illinois ”
When asked about the gas tax being a viable solution, Schwieterman said that fixing fiscal problems are much bigger than raising a tax.
“We’re not anywhere there yet so you may raise the gas tax and the state is just going to be as broke.”
If you want to get involved and want to see officials make changes to infrastructure and transportation policies, consider becoming a member of the IRTBA and make your voice heard.