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What does the infrastructure bill mean for Illinois?

The long-awaited infrastructure bill passed! Over the next ten years, the bill will invest in the following major transportation buckets: 

Equally importantly, the bill will invest $55B in water infrastructure including: 

This water investment is critical given that Illinois has the most lead service lines of any state, and these funds will support a significant level of lead pipe replacement. In addition to lead pipes, Illinois communities have a long backlog of water infrastructure maintenance and repair needsThe State Revolving Fund is a federal, low-interest loan program designed to support water service infrastructure repair and replacement, distributed to states which provide matching funds. The infrastructure bill stipulates that 49% of funds be distributed as grants and principal forgiveness loans, meaning it will essentially be free money for some communities. Much of our water infrastructure was constructed with federal money, and, since then, an increasingly large share has fallen to state and local levels. This results in an untenable situation that impacts Black and Brown communities most acutely, as the recent water crisis in Dixmoor highlights. This long-awaited investment in our nation’s infrastructure will help move water to the top of many capital improvement lists. 

The Chicago region is home to the nation’s second-largest transit system, and we’re currently facing a $30 billion maintenance backlog. This new funding will help our transit agencies make a huge dent in deferred maintenance, providing a better and more reliable experience for customers. This is especially true for transit riders with disabilities. The IIJA will set aside $1.75 billion for legacy transit systems like CTA and Metra to become fully accessible and compliant with the ADA. The new infrastructure bill also makes historic investments in intercity passenger rail. As the Amtrak hub of the Midwest, Chicago is poised to see major upgrades. Our state’s highways and bridges are also in dire need of repair. While the 2019 Rebuild Illinois state capital bill helped raise critically needed revenue, the pandemic-induced reduction in driving – and therefore gas tax revenue – means we’re still well short of what we need. The IIJA will help close that gap. And while driving did drop in 2020, the number of traffic fatalities grew to record levels. We’re pleased to see funds dedicated specifically to road safety, but believe that all highway funding should focus on turning back this troubling trend. One glimmer of promise in the IIJA is a new program that will reconnect communities by addressing the negative impacts of highways that have separated communities and exposed them to emissions and noise for decades.  

As new Federal funds are infused into the transportation system it is now up to the states and communities to prioritize how funding is spent. This is where the action is. It will be more important than ever for us to get our methods right for deciding how we spend transportation dollars to achieve the outcomes that people want and need. To start, we must remember that highway dollars should be first directed toward the maintenance of the massive existing system we already have. And every time we undertake any maintenance or capacity project, we need to ask how we can rebuild sustainable, equitable infrastructure that improves communities. We need to be way more forward-thinking than just repaving all the roads that we have now.   

Illinois DOT is currently developing a data-driven decisions tool to inform how transportation capacity investments are made. Significant modification to the first draft of the tool is still needed to ensure that methods evaluate all transportation capacity investments from a multimodal perspective so that every dollar spent maximizes equitable access for all users of our transportation system with the least contribution to worsening climate change.   

The COP26 Climate summit underway in Glasgow right now underscores the need to evaluate every public dollar we spend for its impact on the long-term health of people and our planet. The White House infrastructure framework positions the bill as a strong answer to climate change. But to the extent that funds are used to build new highways and add lanes to existing roads, it will achieve the exact opposite of a climate benefit. Induced demand is a concept from economics that predicts an increase in demand as supply increases and incurred costs decline. This phenomenon has been widely observed and studied in transportation systems where highways have been expanded to alleviate road congestion problems. As we add more road capacity, driving increases until any initial congestion relief disappears. Check out the SHIFT calculator that estimates the changes in vehicle miles traveled and emissions impacts of capacity expansions of large roadways. For example, 20 new lane miles in the greater Chicago area would induce 104-156 million VMT per year or the emissions from about 7 million gallons of gas. 

The reality is that our world is changing fast. We must be open to new ways of solving our extremely complex infrastructure needs. Value planning is a tool to develop more durable, affordable, community-oriented, and operations-friendly solutions to infrastructure challenges. We must be asking how we can get the most value out of every dollar spent and solve multiple problems at once? We must not simply rebuild the infrastructure of the last century when we now need to mitigate climate change, adapt to climate change impacts already occurring like severe rainfall and extreme heat, reduce the harms created by our old infrastructure, like highways cutting through communities and nearly 40,000 deaths a year on our roadway system, and customize solutions to communities. 

This infusion of Federal dollars into our infrastructure is not free money and it will never feel like enough, especially for those that see the future as largely a continuation of the past 50 years. We must avoid the temptation to rush to spend it in the old ways that engineers are used to doing. In Confessions of a Recovering Engineer, Chuck Marohn notes: “city streets are the frameworks of human habitat, a complex – adaptive environment that must harmonize many competing interests.”  A central theme of his book is that “transportation is getting worse and costing more – we must do better.”    

If ever there was a time, it is now that we must modernize the infrastructure that underpins our society so it delivers the triple bottom line of economic, environmental, and social benefits. NextGeneration Infrastructure: Principles for Post-Industrial Public Works highlights: 

“A narrow focus on optimizing various parts of a complex system may undermine the sustainability of the whole.  If we’re to chart a course for global sustainability, we must begin to decouple carbon-intensive and ecologically harmful technologies from critical infrastructure systems, namely the essential systems for contemporary society:  water, wastewater, power, solid waste, transportation, and communication…we have the opportunity through the power of systems thinking to imagine an alternative future and to take bold steps toward that potential.”  

Money alone is not transformational – what matters is how you spend it. This Federal infrastructure bill is the moment to really start to do things differently.