Will Trump's $1 trillion answer suburban transportation wishes?
Fasten your seat belts, because the next few months likely will contain more transportation zigzags than we've experienced in years.
First the zig. President-elect Donald Trump is promising to become the builder-in-chief by fixing crumbling highways, bridges, tunnels and "Third World" airports.
Sounds perfect for the suburbs, where Metra lacks millions for an automatic braking system, Chicago wants grants to modernize O'Hare International Airport, and the state needs to widen the Eisenhower Expressway but can't pay for it.
But "the devil's in the details," Illinois tollway Chairman Robert Schillerstrom of Naperville said. "We're all waiting to see what the plan is."
Trump intends to pump $1 trillion over 10 years into infrastructure using a revenue-neutral plan. "We are going to fix our inner cities and rebuild our highways, bridges, tunnels, airports, schools, hospitals," Trump said on Election Night.
"It's the greatest opportunity to rebuild everything. Ship yards, iron works, get them all jacked up," chief strategist Steve Bannon told the Hollywood Reporter.
The local to-do list includes fixing a problematic merge with the Jane Addams Tollway and Route 53/I-290, buying new locomotives and rail cars for Metra, building railway grade separations, and soundproofing more homes near O'Hare. Whether or how they'd get funded is an open question.
Money for roads and transit flows into the Federal Highway Trust Fund from a gas tax of 18.4 cents a gallon, but that's dwindling as a result of fuel-efficient cars while construction costs rise.
"At a minimum, the gas tax should be adjusted for inflation," said Regional Transportation Authority Chairman Kirk Dillard, saying $20 billion is needed to get the CTA, Metra and Pace into good repair.
Increase the gas tax and you get a definite source of funds, but "it's certainly a very heavy lift. It might be DOA (in Congress)," said Tony Dorsey, media relations manager for the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials.
The new president will face pushback from conservative Republicans in Congress over the ambitious infrastructure plan.
However, "every new president is given leeway to spend on bricks and mortar during the honeymoon period and Trump is likely to seize the opportunity," DePaul University transportation professor Joseph Schwieterman said.
Trump hasn't addressed the shrinking Highway Trust Fund. Instead, he wants to leverage "public-private partnerships, and private investments through tax incentives" to pay for his plan.
What does that mean?
It could involve issuing tax credits to create equity to issue billions in bonds. The credits could be paid for by new tax revenue coming from resulting construction jobs and profits for contractors, or by repatriating corporate funds, Trump analysts say. The resulting pot of revenues could be loaned at low interest to states and agencies.
A number of local projects, such as a proposed environmentally friendly parkway extending Route 53 in Lake County, have never gotten off the ground, partly because of funding constraints.
Making it cheaper to borrow money helps, said U.S. Rep. Daniel Lipinski, a Democrat from Western Springs and longtime House Transportation Committee member. But "that money needs to be repaid," which is problematic for governments that don't want to take on debt.
Some think Trump might favor expanding tolling and converting more freeways into toll roads, which is severely restricted by federal law.
"I think more tolling should be on the table," Schillerstrom said. "Having users pay for infrastructure is the best and fairest way." However, a proposal to help pay for Route 53's northern extension by tolling part of the existing road quickly died after opposition surfaced.
Meanwhile, earmarks could return after scandals like the infamous bridge to nowhere in Alaska ended the practice of members of Congress steering money to specific projects. Rumors abound of a vote to revive earmarks, which ended in 2009, said Lipinski, who supports the practice, provided it's not abused.
It's nice, but ...
Now the zag. Illinois voters passed a constitutional amendment on Nov. 8 that puts transportation funds in a "lockbox" and prevents gas tax revenues being raided during budget crises.
Does that free up money?
"We are still reviewing what additional steps need to be taken legislatively and legally before the amendment can be implemented," Illinois Department of Transportation spokesman Guy Tridgell said, adding the agency is still analyzing its impact.
The lockbox is a positive step, "but all it does is guarantee monies that already were supposed to go to transportation," Dillard said. "It provides no new funding."
One more thing
Learn more about IDOT's plan to build a new, tolled express lane on I-55 in partnership with the private sector at a public hearing from 4 to 7 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 7, at the Holiday Inn, 6201 Joliet Road, Countryside.
No Grinches aboard
Heading into Chicago with young ones or young-at-heart commuters? The Chicago Transit Authority's beloved Holiday Train runs through the end of December. The train is trimmed with a gazillion lights and features Santa and his reindeer. New this year is an Elves Workshop Train and the CTA is also running its Holiday Bus. For schedules, go to transitchicago.com/holiday/.