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posted: 7/1/2012 7:55 AM

Transportation bill good for Chicago area, officials say

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  • Pace will become the beneficiary of a new influx of federal transit funds along with the CTA and Metra.

      Pace will become the beneficiary of a new influx of federal transit funds along with the CTA and Metra.
    BEV HORNE | Staff Photographer

  • Video: Durbin talks transportation


The final version of the federal transportation bill that cleared Congress after a lengthy partisan soap opera is good for Illinois but may not be good enough, officials say.

Political gamesmanship and the genuine difficulty of shoring up a funding shortfall kept lawmakers negotiating up to the last minute to pass the two-year, nearly $100 billion deal for highways, transit and other transportation needs Friday.

The law will provide Illinois with $4.1 billion for roads and $1.5 billion for public transit, plus retain and create 200,000 jobs, Gov. Pat Quinn said.

It also gives Illinois a larger slice of the transportation pie, allowing it to "move from seventh in the nation to sixth in overall highway transportation dollars received from the federal government," Quinn said in a statement.

Sen. Dick Durbin, who served on a House/Senate committee that hashed out the agreement on the bill, said "it's the best outcome for our state in the last 15 years in terms of our share of the federal pie. There's a 11 percent increase for mass transit that will help in the Chicago area and Downstate."

However, Illinois will find itself in a cat-and-dog fight with other states for a limited $500 million allotted for "projects of national significance" that could include the Elgin-O'Hare Expressway extension and the CREATE program, which reduces freight railroad bottlenecks in the region.

U.S. House members caused massive angst this spring when an earlier version of the bill shifted dedicated transit funding into a general pool that would have shortchanged the CTA, Metra and Pace by millions, agency leaders said.

The final law, modeled largely on a two-year Senate plan, increases transit revenues from $8.36 billion this fiscal year to $8.47 billion in 2013 and to $8.6 billion in 2014, the Regional Transportation Authority calculated. It also gives more than $4.2 billion to repair and replace old tracks, rails, buses and other infrastructure.

"It's a critical first step in supporting Chicagoland's transit system, which is key to the region's economic vitality," RTA Executive Director Joe Costello said.

But he criticized the legislation for slashing a tax credit for workers who take public transit.

The Metropolitan Planning Council also lauded the fact Congress approved the legislation after months of dithering -- saving numerous local summer construction projects from cancellation -- but saw flaws as well.

Although the government agreed to extend a low-interest loan program for transportation projects, for some reason, it's making grants available on a first-come, first-served basis rather than a competitive one, which is a step back, MPC Vice President Peter Skosey said. He also regretted that the law doesn't require transportation projects to be evaluated upon completion to ensure accountability.

"It's not the progressive policy reforms we wanted," still, "we're happy to have a bill," Skosey said.

But he noted that just $500 million secured for projects of national significance "is not a lot," and there will much competition for limited dollars.

Although the Elgin O'Hare Expressway extension east to the airport will be largely funded by a toll increase, there's still a $300 million budget gap.

Durbin staffers said the region stands a good chance of being awarded grant funding.

But one transportation advocacy group, the Active Transportation Alliance, said local bikers and walkers were shafted by the legislation.

The bill cuts federal funding for needs such as trails and safe routes for children to walk to school, ATA Executive Director Ron Burke noted. "Many walking and biking projects will become road kill under this bill," he said in a statement.

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