Rauner's transportation budget: Bikers up, transit down

Motorcycle riders win and disabled transit riders lose, an analysis of transportation funding in the budget proposed by Gov. Bruce Rauner indicates.

The budget also recommends significant cuts to Pace, Metra and the CTA while bumping up revenues for highways and roads.

"Years of fiscal mismanagement left the state in a $6 billion dollar deficit, and Gov. Rauner had to make some difficult decisions to close that gap," Press Secretary Catherine Kelly said.

After initial statements of dismay, Metra, Pace and CTA officials aren't fanning any flames as talks with the governor's office continue.

But public transit advocates are troubled. "Now is not the time to be cutting funding for transit," Active Transportation Alliance spokesman Kyle Whitehead said.

Here are five transportation take-aways from Rauner's budget proposal, which needs legislative approval to become reality.

• Illinois' Cycle Rider Safety Training Program, which provides free lessons for motorcycle owners and operates a public safety campaign, would get an extra $633,000 under the 2016 budget. The program was allocated $11.2 million in 2015 but is expected to use only $3.6 million this year. Next year's allocation would be $11.9 million.

Meanwhile Illinois motorcycle crash trends are all over the place - totaling 3,756 in 2011, 4,231 in 2012 and 3,464 in 2013.

"Increases to the cycle rider safety program are for increased costs to department personnel who help administer the program, and the re-appropriation of funds from prior years to continue to reimburse colleges for holding the program," Kelly said.

"Why protect those things and cut services for the disabled?" asked state Rep. Elaine Nekritz, a Northbrook Democrat. "To me, that's not the right balancing act."

Illinois briefly had a helmet law in the 1960s that was rescinded. Rauner, a motorcycle enthusiast who created a splash bringing his Harley-Davidson to the state fair last summer, avoided taking a position on a mandatory helmet law during the election.

• As the senior population grows, so does the demand for paratransit, the transit service for seniors and people with disabilities. Pace, which runs paratransit in the region, estimates ridership will jump about 5 percent a year. Rauner's budget recommends dropping $8.5 million from paratransit, but that action is also subject to General Assembly consent.

"At this point, we're putting our energy toward communicating to the governor's office and to members of the General Assembly about the importance of this funding and its impact on the mobility and independence of people with disabilities," Pace spokesman Patrick Wilmot said.

"For our paratransit budget, the only way that we can balance the budget in the event of a funding shortfall is a fare increase because it is a federally mandated service."

Wilmot added that it's still early in the process, and a fare increase would require hearings and a board vote.

• A recommendation to decrease state funding for mass transit could be a heavy lift. A chunk of transit funding comes from sales taxes, and the RTA Act requires the state to match those revenues by 30 percent. As it stands now, the proposed budget would cut the match to 20 percent for Metra, Pace and the CTA, or by about $127 million. Any change to the formula, however, requires consent of the Democrat-controlled legislature.

Senate President John Cullerton "is concerned that ... while Rauner calls them cuts, many of them are cost shifts that will be born by taxpayers - including those that pay transit fares," spokeswoman Rikeesha Phelon said.

• While Rauner asked transit agencies to tighten their belts and cut waste, the budget praises the Illinois Department of Transportation as an "economic engine for the state."

Overall, IDOT's budget is down by $208 million, from $2.8 billion to $2.6 billion. But road construction is pegged at $1.85 billion, an increase of $120 million from 2015.

While $120 million has been considered a drop in the bucket compared to the billions needed by the state for highways, "investing in infrastructure is a priority for the governor and he will work with the legislature on a capital bill," Kelly said.

• In 2008, Gov. Rod Blagojevich implemented a free-fares-for-seniors program. Transit agencies sounded the alarm after costs soared. It was scaled back to low-income seniors and disabled riders, and the state kicked in a reimbursement worth about $34 million to Metra, Pace and the CTA in 2014. The subsidy was scaled back to about half that in 2015, and under Rauner's plan, the remaining $17.5 million would be eliminated in 2016.

"This budget restructures the core costs of state government by reducing spending and funding essential state services and increasing funding to education," Kelly said.

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