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updated: 2/22/2012 8:52 PM

RTA OKs spending $425,000 to fight for transit funding

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Desperate times call for desperate measures -- or a lobbyist -- Regional Transportation Authority leaders decided Wednesday.

Facing the loss of millions of dollars in federal funding for transit if a controversial U.S. House transportation bill passes, RTA directors reversed course and approved executing a $425,000 contract with ASGK Public Strategies consultants.

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Board directors in January balked at hiring the firm, founded by power broker David Axelrod. But RTA administrators narrowed the scope of the contract so the lobbyists' efforts will be directed at convincing Illinois' congressional delegation to oppose the legislation that strips mass transit of the 2.86 cents it now receives from the 18.4-cent-a-gallon gas tax. Transit would come from the general fund instead, which transit leaders call an uncertain income source.

While Democrats oppose the House measure, U.S. Rep. Peter Roskam, a Wheaton Republican, voted for it in the House Ways and Means Committee.

But Republican U.S. Reps. Judy Biggert of Hinsdale and Robert Dold of Kenilworth have been highly critical of the bill and more GOP congressmen could join them as a result of the lobbying, RTA administrators said.

"There's an attack on transit," consultant Jim Smith said. Prior to the dedicated transit allocation in the gas tax, highway building and transit interests fought over funding in Washington, he said. Now with a looming shortfall in the Highway Trust Fund, which is paid for with gas taxes, "old rivalries have resurfaced and the highway lobby is going after the 2.86 cents," Smith noted.

The House bill "would remove our reliable source of funding. We need to get the Illinois delegation fired up," RTA Executive Director Joe Costello said.

RTA Director William Coulson of Glenview was not convinced. "I don't think it's the right time in an election year to spend this kind of money," he said.

Coulson also suggested that the RTA's efforts would be duplicative given that it belongs to a national organization of transit agencies with lobbyists and that the CTA and Metra employ federal lobbyists. "You see lobbyists tripping over each other" in government, Coulson said.

Board Director Jan Carlson of Elburn said he voted against the contract previously "because I didn't feel the presentation was sound." But Carlson said the revamped proposal met his favor.

Coulson cast the sole "no" vote on the contract.

The lobbyists will also work to kill provisions in the legislation that would prevent the CTA from receiving funding for buses and that reduces a federal tax credit for using transit.

The contract is for two years at $425,000 a year with the opportunity for two one-year extensions. It can be canceled at any time. Future goals would be to push Congress to come up with a long-term capital funding program for transit.

RTA planners estimate $26 billion is needed to keep equipment and infrastructure in good repair.

Axelrod, a top adviser to President Barack Obama, is no longer with ASGK. The firm is subcontracting with lobbyists Smith, Dawson & Andrews and E. Morris Communications.

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