Wednesday, January 05, 2005

Finding Funds for Roads: the Referenda?

Lake County, Illinois encompasses the northern suburbs of Chicago, situated between Cook County and the Wisconsin state line. In the last decennial census, it was one of the fastest growing counties in the state.

While the eastern part of the county has several established pre-War suburbs and cities, the western portion was primarily agricultural and has been the site of much of the recent growth. Investments in the transportation infrastructure have not kept up with the growth and the county has been scurrying to meet residents' complaints about congestion.

One way politicians have been dealing with the gap between funding for infrastructure needs and citizen demands has been to propose tax increases to be approved via popular referenda. While it is often assumed that people are unwilling to vote to increase their own taxes, there are numerous recent examples of voters approving transportation plans. If a plan is thoughtfully conceived and capable of enhancing mobility--like the People's Transportation Plan approved by voters in Miami in 2002--voters may be open for approving a tax increase.

The leaders of Lake County, however, have not been as lucky. Last March, the County Commission put before the voters a referendum to increase the sales tax for general, unspecified road improvements which failed miserably. This year, the Daily Herald reports, they are back to the drawing board. This time, they are planning on specifying the road projects to be funded in the hope that this will persuade voters to approve the tax increase.

It is laudable that the commission is providing some transparency to the proposed spending process. However, I am expecting the measure to once again fail primarily because it restricts its focus simply to road widening. Transportation is a function of land use and without land use reform, road widening projects are rather Sisyphean. Instead, the County Commission should consider a referendum that funds its Year 2020 Transportation Priority Plan which calls for a mulitmodal approach to transportation development. It doesn't necessarily get to the crux of the land use problem, but its multimodal approach may strike voters as a wise alternative to the interminable widening of roads.

(Linked to Outside the Beltway)