In less than three weeks, or right around the time many of us will be topping off our tanks for an Independence Day road trip, the 19-cent statewide Motor Fuel Tax increase approved at the end of the spring session by the General Assembly will kick into gear.
Of course, it isn’t unusual for us to wake up one day and see the per-gallon prices at our corner Thorntons or Speedway or BP jump 20 or even 30 cents, but in this case, the gouging will be courtesy of Springfield rather than Big Oil.
The argument is that the extra bucks we will be paying will give us a bang when it comes to improving our weather-worn roads and bridges, rather than simply inflating someone else’s dividends.
Whatever your thoughts on that debate, feel free to curse into the wind while you fill up the 35-gallon tank on your 18-mile-per-gallon vehicle.
With the horse out of the barn — or, in this case, the Illinois State Capitol — on the first MFT increase since 1990, a mandate has been handed to entities like the Lake County Division of Transportation to turn the new dollars into quality-of-life improvements for anyone who must use a local roadway.
As it turns out, LCDOT officials spent much of this spring drafting a five-year plan for upgrades to everything from road surfaces to culverts to bike paths — and then word came in about the MFT tax increase and other measures to float a state infrastructure overhaul.
“Some of you might have read the paper and heard that there’s a capital bill that got passed,” LCDOT Director Shane Schneider told the Lake County Board’s Public Works, Planning and Transportation Committee last week, apparently with his tongue in cheek.
That understatement aside, Schneider said the county’s springtime planning didn’t assume any increase in state funding, and he added that “there’s a lot we still don’t know” about how much Lake County will benefit from the state’s overall $45 billion infrastructure plan.
“The capital bill was one bill, but there are five other bills that went along with it,” Schneider said, “and some of these bills are over 1,000 pages long, so we’re still trying to comprehend what it all means.”
One estimate Schneider could provide is that the 19-cent MFT hike will probably result in an additional $7 million annually for the county, which currently receives around $10 million from the funding source. The estimated arrival for the first check reflecting the higher return is sometime in the fall.
Beyond that, Schneider said, “it’s not exactly crystal clear” how new state funds toward capital improvements will flow outward.
But one sentiment expressed toward a state-assisted wish list was this: Lake County needs to build more railroad bridges — known in the industry as grade separations — like the ones constructed in the last half-decade over Rollins Road in Round Lake Beach and Washington Street in Grayslake.
“Just about everybody at this table is really frustrated by the Canadian National and its freight trains,” said board Member John Wasik. “Is there any hope — say in the capital bill funding or (with) federal dollars — that we might be able to get some grade crossings going over the next few years at some of the most critical roadblocks?”
“That is certainly our objective,” said Schneider, adding that “there’s never been a better opportunity” to explore adding more railroad bridges with the combination of the capital bill and federal programs geared toward such projects.
Even before the General Assembly cobbled together its new funding for infrastructure work, Schneider said, county planners identified a prime candidate for a railroad bridge: The Canadian National tracks just west of the intersection of Quentin and Old McHenry Roads in Lake Zurich.
In fact, when Schneider mentioned that intersection, committee members buzzed about how freight trains not only pass through the area but sometimes stop completely.
“There’s a significant amount of traffic along that road — between 20,000 and 27,000 cars a day,” Schneider said, “and then a freight train that goes through there stops — and there’s a lot of trains.”
He added that LCDOT research revealed that, “Right now, there’s about 20 freight trains that move through there on a daily basis, and in the next year, they’re saying that could be almost 30 freight trains every single day.”
This in mind, the county has included the Quentin/Old McHenry/Canadian National Railroad tangle on a list of 36 expansion projects eyed over the next five years. Specifically, a Phase 1 study will be conducted to see if widening the roadways will improve the situation and/or if a grade separation is feasible.
Schneider added that determining if a railroad bridge is possible “would be the main objective of the study,” and he estimated that the process should take about two years.
Motorists in other corners of the county dealing with the reality of freight trains no doubt have their own sticking points in mind — like the CN crossing at Route 120 just west of Route 83 in Grayslake, or the one across Grand Avenue in Lake Villa, or the one across Route 173 in Antioch, to name just three.
It is quickly pointed out that all of those would be state routes, so any improvements to such would be have to be fueled by the state. Quandaries like these will also await answers now that Illinois has committed itself to collecting more of our personal transportation budgets.
Story by Dan Moran for chicagotribune.com