Report: Illinois Transportation Planning Lags Neighboring States in Project Selection, Transparency, and Oversight Metrics

Illinois Legislators expected to announce new reform proposal this week 

La Grange:  While Illinois passed a historic plan to address its $4.6 billion transportation infrastructure backlog in 2019, it continues to lag other Midwestern states’ implementation of systems to evaluate and prioritize projects, according to a new report by the Illinois Economic Policy Institute (ILEPI).   The findings come as Legislators are expected to announce a new effort to reform the state’s transportation project selection process this week.

Read the Report, “Improving Transportation Investment through Performance-Based Programming.”

“As Illinois generates billions in new transportation revenues from increased motor fuel taxes and vehicle fees, it has an imperative to demonstrate exactly where that new funding is going,” said report author and ILEPI Transportation Analyst Mary Tyler. “Performance-based programs (PBP) have become the industry-standard tool that many states are using to provide this level of transparency, and to ensure infrastructure spending addresses quantifiable public needs like reducing congestion and crashes, promoting access to jobs, or improving air quality.”  

Specifically, Tyler’s report explores how the states of Virginia, Kentucky, Ohio, and Minnesota have implemented performance-based programs for their transportation investments.  These are formal processes that select projects by using a pre-determined scoring system, criteria that measure projects against quantifiable policy goals, and mechanisms for independent oversight.  Safety, congestion, economic development, and benefit-to-cost ratios are the most common criteria used for scoring and evaluation.  Some states also consider metrics like accessibility, environmental impacts, asset management needs, land use coordination, geographic distinctions, and equity for historically marginalized communities.

“States with performance-based project selection systems are required to show how specific economic, safety, or maintenance needs are driving project selection,” Tyler said. 

Illinois does not currently have the kind of formal PBP system that exists in many other states.  Instead, the Multi-Year Plan (MYP) – also known as the Highway Improvement Program – is the foundation of the Illinois Department of Transportation’s (IDOT) current project selection process.  And while steps have been made in recent years to improve the system used to select projects for the MYP, the process for selecting one project over another is not formally defined, not published for general review, and provides little opportunity for public feedback.

“Illinois faces years of maintenance backlogs, rising roadway fatalities, deepening climate impacts, and racialized disparities in access to jobs and transportation systems,” Tyler added.   “A performance-based program for project selection would ultimately give the state more tools to efficiently address these problems—and give the public more confidence that these massive investments will deliver the best possible returns.”

After Illinois voters overwhelmingly enacted a constitutional amendment in 2016 to prevent state transportation revenues from being diverted into non-transportation projects, the 2019 passage of the Rebuild Illinois capital plan contributed to a significant increase in funding for IDOT’s multi-year plan.  State transportation revenue now accounts for 33% of total MYP funding, compared to only 12% in the FY19-24 program.  

“Over the past few years, Illinois has supported historic measures, including tax increases, in an effort to modernize the transportation systems so crucial to the state’s long-term economic vitality,” Tyler concluded.  “By embracing the type of formalized and data-driven project selection process that has taken root in neighboring states, Illinois can ensure it is delivering the fiscal transparency and performance outcomes the traveling public is depending on.”

A 2019 legislative proposal that would have required IDOT to create a performance-based project selection process that integrated traffic mitigation, economic development, livability, environmental, and safety metrics was ultimately unsuccessful.  However this week, Ill. Rep. Kam Buckner (D-Chicago) and Ill. Sen. Ram Villivalam (D-Chicago) are announcing a new legislative effort they are co-sponsoring to reform the project selection process, and to make state transportation investments “more transparent, accountable, and equitable to all Illinois residents.”

The Illinois Economic Policy Institute (ILEPI) is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization which uses advanced statistics and the latest forecasting models to promote thoughtful economic growth for businesses and working families.