Illinois infrastructure ranks high, but state finances pose big threat

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By NOAH SHEAR
Illinois Policy

In CNBC’s recent ranking of states for their infrastructure, Illinois took the top spot.

Illinois’ history as the nation’s center for commerce and transportation makes the ranking logical, but there is a warning to state political leaders that came with the designation.

“But the state also has some serious infrastructure issues, including decrepit roads and bridges, and public water systems badly in need of refurbishment. More troubling: Illinois’ dismal balance sheet makes it unclear how the state will handle the heavy burdens on its big shoulders,” CNBC wrote.

CNBC ranked each state by evaluating their roads, bridges, airports, utilities and broadband, with points awarded for site availability and sustainability. CNBC’s 2021 ranking of America’s 10 best states for infrastructure comes as the U.S. Congress debates the Democrats’ infrastructure bill.

CNBC said the state’s reliable electrical grid averages 2 hours of power outages annually. The electricity production in Illinois is among the best in the nation because of Illinois’ diverse energy sourcing, generating more power from nuclear energy than anywhere else in the nation.

CNBC also applauded Illinois for broadband connectivity: 89.3% of residents have access to strong broadband.

Illinois ranked second in the nation in rail freight volume; Chicago hosts the nation’s largest U.S. rail gateway. Illinois has the nation’s third-largest interstate highway network. Among Illinois’ 119 airports and nine international airports, O’Hare International processes the second-most flights of all airports in the world.

Illinois leads the nation in the value of goods which travel through the state. By road and train, over 1.2 billion tons of goods, valued around $3 trillion, travel through the state. Another 2 million tons of cargo arrives by air, valued at over $185 billion.

Despite its impressive size and scope, Illinois’s infrastructure is at risk. The roads have deteriorated faster than they’ve been maintained. Twenty-one percent of Illinois’ roads are in unacceptable condition, according to CNBC. The rankings also listed the public water system as a vulnerability in Illinois’ infrastructure.

The system used to choose projects aggravates the infrastructure problems. The state hasn’t directed funds to projects which have the highest return to taxpayers. House Bill 253 could potentially help fix the state’s proclivity for pork over purpose; the bill awaits Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s signature.

HB 253 was sent to Pritzker June 25. It changes the process for choosing infrastructure projects, prioritizing the projects that have the most benefit with the least cost. HB 253 would prioritize maintaining existing infrastructure over building new.

The bill allocates no new funding to roads. Existing funds would be directed toward priority projects rather than the new roads and bridges politicians love for photo ops. Given Illinois’s fiscal woes created by an unsustainable pension system, controlling the cost of infrastructure is especially important.

The infrastructure rating was part of CNBC’s wider study of top states for business. Illinois ranked 15th overall in that study with dismal marks for its economy and its business friendliness. Each of those factors ranked 48th in the nation.

Illinois fared worse when the Tax Foundation ranked states by business tax climate in 2020, coming in at No. 35. Property taxes ranked 48th and unemployment insurance taxes at 40th – before the COVID-19 pandemic left the fund insolvent.

The state has been slow to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic downturn, with unemployment at 7.2% while the U.S. as a whole is at 5.9%. Black Illinoisans in their prime working years have been especially hurt, with 11.3% of them still missing from Illinois’ workforce.

Atop this sluggish recovery, state leaders passed the 21st consecutive deficit budgetdespite adding $655 million in new taxes on the state’s job creators.

Illinoisans may be able to rely on their electricity supply, but a more robust workforce would better enable them to pay the light bill.

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