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updated: 3/6/2012 8:21 AM

Where's Superman when transit funding is tied to the track?

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  • Metra and Pace riders have a lot at stake as Congress starts debating transportation funding again. An initial five-year, $260 billion plan offered last month has been pulled off the table, and now Congress is focusing on a more short-term funding bill.

       Metra and Pace riders have a lot at stake as Congress starts debating transportation funding again. An initial five-year, $260 billion plan offered last month has been pulled off the table, and now Congress is focusing on a more short-term funding bill.
    Bill Zars | Staff Photographer

 
 

When I started reporting on transportation, it was in the midst of the transit funding crisis of 2007-2008. The Chicago Transit Authority, Metra and Pace faced doomsday scenarios of higher fares and/or reduced service because of a cash shortfall.

Turns out this wasn't the first or the last funding crisis because mass transit, I've learned, is the Lois Lane of transportation: always in peril.

The latest threat was a pretty serious one. America pays for its transportation system, including highways, bridges and transit, with a flat 18.4 cent per gallon gasoline tax. With gas consumption down and no increase in the tax, instituted in 1997, the highway trust fund is on the rocks.

Early in February, U.S. House Republicans rolled out a five-year $260 billion funding bill. As the measure went through the sausage-making process, the House Ways and Means Committee stripped away 2.86 cents designated for transit from the 18.4 cent tax. As a result, transit revenues would come from the general fund.

Cue the cries of outrage from Metra, Pace, the CTA and Regional Transit Authority. The bill meant public transit would be "thrown to the lions," RTA Executive Director Joe Costello told me. Along with the hit to Metra, Pace and the CTA, the legislation approved in the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee would have slashed Amtrak funding by 25 percent, cut money for the Illinois Department of Transportation by $900 million, and reduced a tax break on transit fares.

That got the attention of Republicans Judy Biggert of Hinsdale and Robert Dold of Kenilworth, who both spoke out against the measure.

"We realized as soon as we saw it, this was not good for the suburbs, particularly right now," said Biggert, referring to rising gas prices, which traditionally means drivers switching to Metra.

Mass transit "is something that's important and we need a stable, steady source of funding," Dold said.

Rumblings of a revolt by rank and file GOP lawmakers caused Republican leaders to quickly pull the legislation and start a rewrite.

"The House Republicans miscalculated the votes for the bill," U.S. Rep. Dan Lipinski said.

Why offer up such a flop in the first place? "It seems transit is more of a big city issue, and big cities are seen as more Democratic," theorized Lipinski, a Western Springs Democrat serving on the Transportation Committee. "But these were issues for suburban Republicans."

Congressman Peter Roskam, a Wheaton Republican on the Ways and Means Committee, voted for the legislation and a spokeswoman said his position hadn't changed. Under the bill, "mass transit will be fully funded up front ensuring they face no uncertainty over the next five years. The current funding source will not meet future spending needs and would result in the (highway trust) fund's insolvency in two years," a Roskam statement said.

So what's next?

An 18-month transportation bill appears to be on the menu for this week with restored funding for transit. But what happens with Amtrak, state funding and other damsels in distress is unknown.

So what do you think? Drop me a line at mpyke@dailyherald.com

One more thing

U.S. Rep. Randy Hultgren, a Winfield Republican on the Transportation Committee, supported the original version of the bill. This time around, "I'm not persuaded that a short-term bill is the best we can do. It doesn't make sense to me; local transportation officials in my district need the certainty provided by a long-term bill," Hultgren said.

Stay tuned.

Your voice

The responses keep coming in regarding extending Route 53 -- or not.

Janet Gundach explained that "the neighbors of Terramere in Arlington Heights, have been trying to get the extension of Route 53 for years. The traffic on Lake Cook is getting out of hand. We have a wonderful wetland across Lake Cook Road from Terramere that we cannot get to due to the heavy traffic.

"The light at Arlington Heights Road and Lake Cook Road is so short for bikers and walkers that it is an accident waiting to happen. Someone will get killed trying to cross Lake Cook Road from Terramere. If Route 53 does not go through, we need an overpass to protect walkers and bikers. There are a lot of unhappy motorists who have to drive a longer way home because the 53 extension still is not in the planning. Our neighbors all feel the same way."

And, Peter VandeMotter of Mundelein thinks, the extension should "be built as a parkway, with buffers of trees on both sides. (It would be) less intrusive to adjacent land uses and more pleasant to drive. There are many of these out east. I remember a ride on New York's Hutchinson River Parkway. There were no billboards and the cwellular towers were carefully disguised. We don't have parkways here, Lake Shore Drive being the closest approximation. Just one mainline plaza at the south, combined with ramp plazas for north-facing ramps, should be sufficient."

Upcoming

Route 83 lovers are all invited to an IDOT forum from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday at Round Lake Beach's Cultural and Civic Center, 2007 Civic Way. The state is considering improving Route 83 between Routes 132 and 120. But wait, there's more. IDOT engineers also will discuss plans to upgrade Route 137 from Routes 83 to 45.

Gridlock alert

How exciting to get the first Construction Season 2012 news release of the year! The honor goes to South Barrington. IDOT crews will be widening Route 62 from two to five lanes from Easting's Way to Penny Road. Work will last from now through November. One lane of traffic will be open in each direction.

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