Encouraging signs for needed work on region's transit

I write to follow up on Marni Pyke's Dec. 28 column "What to expect for planes, trains and automobiles in 2016." Ms. Pyke's overview of transportation in our region is "right on track." Press coverage that the state plans to conduct a general obligation bond sale to continue to fund transportation and transit is encouraging.

Still, our region lags far behind in capital and infrastructure investment. We spent less than half of New York per capita last year and in 2010 our region spent one-fifth of what New York invested per capita in its mass transit system. Los Angeles passed a referendum to spend more on mass transit and Dallas is investing heavily and now has train service to its major airport. Utah has been investing large sums for mass transit, too.

Even so, for three years running, the RTA regional system proudly had the lowest operating cost per passenger mile of the systems in the country's top 10 metropolitan regions. In 2013, the region's passenger miles traveled exceeded four billion for the third consecutive year. As public sector credit rating downgrades regularly make the news, the RTA's credit rating is among the best in the public sector.

The RTA board recently adopted a $3.9 billion five-year capital program, for 2016-2020, which includes an estimated $872 million in capital expenditures for 2016. This funding includes Pace's express service on the Jane Addams Memorial Tollway and the launch of its 2017 regional Arterial Rapid Transit network with Pulse service on Milwaukee Avenue; Metra's fleet modernization plan; and CTA's express bus service along two of its busiest routes.

The RTA programmed approximately $1 billion worth of capital projects in 2015.

We do all we can with the funding we have, but our needs are much greater. We must continue to prioritize maintenance of the system and infrastructure toward achieving a "State of Good Repair." Our region's mass transit capital needs are a staggering $36.1 billion. This includes the region's backlog - or what it would take to "catch up" and fund the unmet needs that have snowballed over time - of $19.5 billion and 10-year capital needs going forward of $1.6 billion a year.

Federal lawmakers made progress in addressing our capital needs by passing a multiyear surface transportation bill at the end of last year which included increased funding for transit.

Nonetheless we continue to look for additional support from Springfield.

Low gas prices are important and "drive" more riders to their cars instead of public transit. The Illinois gas tax has been 19 cents a gallon since 1990 and the federal tax has been just below that since 1993. Adjusted for inflation, the federal 18.4 cent gas tax would be a whopping 30 cents today. Interestingly, adjusted for inflation, Illinois gasoline prices are lower today than when the Bears won their only Super Bowl in 1985.

Our public transportation system is the backbone of an evolving shared mobility ecosystem.

Downtown Chicago's Loop Link and the redevelopment of Union Station are steps in the right direction and benefit riders throughout our region, especially suburbanites. As we gear up for 2016, let's remember we are one region, connecting Arlington Heights with Chicago and Libertyville with Wheaton.

These weeks after the holidays are always a challenge. Let's all move in the same direction when we hear that alarm clock: public transportation benefits us all and it must continue to be a priority in 2016.

Kirk Dillard, a former state senator from Lombard, is chairman of the Regional Transportation Authority.

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