Byline: Russell Lissau Daily Herald Staff Writer
Whatever designation you use, road congestion is frequently cited as Lake County's biggest problem. It seems to take forever to drive anywhere here, whether you're headed to the local supermarket, your job or anywhere.
Heck, some days, if you plan to visit Six Flags Great America or Westfield Shoppingtown Hawthorn, you might as well pack a lunch for all the time it'll take you to get to either place.
Lake County leaders say they've finally got an answer: a new sales tax that could raise $15 million a year for roadwork to ease traffic congestion.
All they need to get it to work is for voters on March 16 to approve a quarter-percent sales tax.
But will it really make a difference? Could $15 million a year actually give Lake County's traffic nightmare a happily-ever-after ending?
Absolutely, proponents say. And assuming voters give them the go-ahead, they know just how to get the job done, whether it's through traditional funding efforts or by using the money to contribute to federally or state-funded endeavors that otherwise would be unaffordable for the county.
"Everybody drives, and everybody has an intersection that is a thorn in their side as they drive through," County Administrator Barry Burton said. "If we're able to do (some) of those ... it will have a significant impact."
Road usage is up
As Lake County's population has swelled, so has the use of its roads. An estimated 644,000 people lived here as of 2000, up 28 percent from a decade earlier. During that time, the annual number of miles motorists drove on county-owned roads increased from about 658 million to nearly 1.1 billion, according to county transportation division statistics.
Unfortunately for local motorists, improvements to those roads haven't kept pace, and that's why, officials say, you get stuck in traffic jams.
"You have hundreds of thousands of more people driving on the same roads," county board Chairwoman Suzi Schmidt said. "And more people are going to cause more congestion."
County officials believe a sales tax on goods at most local businesses would help remedy the situation. The tax would cost customers an extra 25 cents for every $100 spent and could amount to about $20 more a year in sales-tax payments for average county residents, officials estimate.
The tax would not apply to purchases of automobiles, boats, medicine and most grocery store items.
The money generated would be spent exclusively on new road projects designed to ease traffic-congestion problems and not on existing efforts or basic repaving work. Jobs could include road widenings, creating turn lanes at busy intersections and synchronizing traffic signals.
"What can you buy with a quarter?" asked JoAnn Eckmann, a former Libertyville mayor who leads a citizens group called Lake County Residents for Traffic Relief, which supports the sales-tax plan. "People are going to get something for it."
A 2003 amendment to the Illinois counties code allows Lake County to use new sales-tax funds for road projects as long as voters first approve the proposal.
No organized groups have announced opposition efforts. Conversely, organizations including the village boards in Round Lake and Round Lake Beach, the Park City council and the Lake County Partners economic-development group have endorsed the plan.
Research indicates many local residents back the concept, too. A 2003 county-commissioned survey showed 70 percent of registered voters support or strongly support the sales-tax proposal. The poll also confirmed traffic congestion was, by far, the biggest issue for potential voters.
"The quarter-cent sales tax is something we think the public has embraced," Schmidt said.
Is it enough? …