Illinois capital bill could tip the scales toward high-speed rail

May 10, 2019

New legislation introduced in Illinois this week by Senator Marty Sandoval could be a big step forward for high-speed rail.

The Illinois General Assembly is considering a “capital bill,” a major infrastructure spending package, which it hasn’t done since 2009. That’s an unusually long gap. What’s more, this proposed bill is dramatically different from past ones, both in how it identifies funding and how it spends it.

Previous capital bills have relied on “one-off” revenue sources, and particularly sources not related to transportation. For instance, a major part of the 2009 capital bill revenue was supposed to come from video gambling machines, which never fully met expectations.

Sen. Sandoval's new bill is not only focused on drawing funding from transportation user fees—like the gas tax and vehicle registrations—it’s set up in a sustainable manner, to create a steady funding stream into the future, by indexing these fees to inflation. It should, in fact, make future capital bills unnecessary. Instead of the boom-and-bust cycles created by these occasional spending packages, Illinois will have a reliable revenue stream that makes it easier to plan and prioritize the sort of upgrades identified in our Fast Track Initiative.

The other critical part of this bill deals with how this funding is allocated. It requires the state’s department of transportation to evaluate, prioritize and choose projects through an open, data-based process. This process will have to solicit input from a variety of sources, including transit authorities, and run projects through a scoring system that evaluates factors like environmental impact, economic development, and safety.

It may sound straightforward, but this represents a huge shift from the way things are done today. Evaluating projects with these performance measures will make it easier to stack up passenger rail upgrades against the highway projects that would have traditionally been prioritized. It also means that road projects that consider transit, bikes and pedestrians will score better than those that don’t.

The project scoring system, and individual project scores, would be posted on the web for everyone to see. Virginia is already doing something similar, and its SmartScale program is a model for Illinois to follow. This bill would fundamentally improve how Illinois funds and selects transportation projects. The new structure it lays out will make it easier to plan and build our Illinois Fast Track Initiative, which is the foundation of a Midwest high-speed rail network. We’ll be watching this bill closely for the next few weeks, as Illinois wraps up a very busy legislative session.

This week at Midwest High Speed Rail Association

MHSRA staff attended a meeting hosted by Metra and Northwestern's Sandhouse Rail Group to discuss priorities and challenges for the future of the agency. Exciting plans are currently in the works pending capital funding, including airport express service and pilot electrification programs.