Local Editorials

Our view: Not so fast on gas tax, Mr. Mayor

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel speaks during a news conference Aug. 6 in Chicago.
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel speaks during a news conference Aug. 6 in Chicago.

If you thought it was impossible to be simultaneously right and wrong, you haven’t been paying attention to Illinois politics.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel made waves across Illinois on Tuesday morning during a news conference with the Metropolitan Mayors Caucus when he called for adding 20 to 30 cents a gallon to the Illinois gas tax.

The caucus represents the Chicago region’s 275 cities, towns and villages, and by extension a major portion of the state’s population and road miles.

Some of those leaders – which include Crystal Lake Mayor Aaron Shepley, Algonquin Village President John Schmitt, Woodstock Mayor Brian Sager and Fox River Grove Village President Robert Nunamaker – were listed as supporters.

However, several later said they were not in support of any specific proposal.

Metropolitan Mayors Caucus Executive Director Dave Bennett said he compiled a list of public officials who the organization believed could support a capital bill, but they didn’t commit to Emanuel’s plan.

Although Emanuel wasn’t attempting to speak on behalf of every Illinoisan, the resentment from downstaters was swift and strong.

Emanuel, pointing out neighboring states have used similar increases to fund transportation projects, said Illinois “can’t wait any longer,” calling to mind earlier remarks expressing a lack of hope in the federal government coming to terms on a highway bill.

On one hand, he’s right – Illinois has left its gas tax at 19 cents a gallon since 1990 and hasn’t enacted a major capital bill since 2009. Back then there was talk of jumping to 27 cents a gallon, and given inflation since then, it’s surprising Emanuel still is floating only two or three dimes.

Yet on the other, he’s all wrong – leaping 30 cents a gallon adds $4.50 to the cost of one tank of gas on a 15-gallon car, and those of us who don’t live in tightly congested urban areas with widely accessible mass transit systems are going to be crushed by the cost of keeping our cars and trucks running, to say nothing of the way it would affect the cost of living.

It is not the fault of our incoming governor that the gas tax has stagnated for almost three decades (although surely some veteran Springfield lawmakers deserve a share of blame), but on what planet is it even remotely plausible to solve that issue in one fell swoop?

To be fair to Emanuel, he made it clear there are many factors to consider, such as suggesting the state should consider taxing vehicles by miles driven, a proposal that bristles at first, but if introduced as a replacement for a gas tax would arguably be more fair as it would apply equally to diesel, hybrid and electric vehicles. It also might cut a break for people who buy fuel for machines that don’t actually use the highway system – farm equipment, lawn mowers, snowblowers, leaf blowers and so on.

The 2009 capital bill jacked the cost of vehicle registration from $20 to $99, which is fair in that it applies to everyone equally but unfair in that it makes no allowance for how much a given vehicle makes use of the roads the state pays to maintain.

This is not explicitly a Democrat issue. Transportation Secretary Randy Blankenhorn, an appointee of current Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner, recently said vehicle fees and the gas tax should go up an unspecified amount to provide “revenue necessary to maintain, enhance, modernize our system,” according to The State Journal-Register.

Roads have to be maintained. This is indisputable. Whether Illinois can afford to meet those obligations without increased revenue or raiding other parts of the budget remains to be seen, but all indications are that driving in this state is somehow going to be significant more expensive sooner rather than later.

It would’ve been nice if the gas tax had risen incrementally, so we didn’t face this dramatic decision, but no one really wanted to move things along gradually. Hopefully, the General Assembly takes a big picture look at how we fund highway projects here and figures out a way to raise money for those projects that more fairly assigns the cost to the people who derive the most benefit.

A massive, blanket motor fuel tax increase might be the quickest way to generate piles of money, but it’s far from the most equitable solution, and it promises unintended consequences that will ripple throughout the state economy. Illinois can do better if its leaders put in the time to truly study the situation. Whether they will remains to be seen.

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