Lawmakers ditch bailout plan for Chicago transit
SPRINGFIELD -- State lawmakers rejected a multimillion-dollar bailout of the Chicago region's transit agencies Tuesday, a move that not only threatens to curtail bus service and raise train fares, but soon could lead to thousands of additional cars flooding the area's highways.
The region's people movers say they need $240 million to cover operating deficits and millions more to upgrade and expand the system. They need it by Sept. 16, or, on the morning of the 17th, 400 fewer CTA buses will be running and other service cuts along with fare hikes will be implemented across the CTA, Pace and Metra.
But lawmakers fell short of the 71 votes needed in the 118-member House to immediately approve increasing the sales taxes in the Chicago area a quarter-cent to raise cash for the CTA, Metra and Pace and another quarter-cent for road and transit upgrades in the collar counties.
That would have added a combined 50 cents in tax to every $100 of spending on merchandise in the area. In some suburban communities, the effect would have been an overall sales tax near 10 percent, or $10 on every $100 tab.
The proposal got 61 votes, and when it was clear support wasn't there, sponsors used a procedural maneuver to wipe out the vote and preserve the opportunity to bring the plan back for future consideration.
House Speaker Michael Madigan, a Chicago Democrat, said he hopes to do just that before the Sept. 16 doomsday scenario and laid the blame for the plan's demise at the doorstep of Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who's threatened a veto because of the sales tax increase.
Madigan said a governor who lives in Chicago just blocks from the Brown Line should be helping pass this plan, not lobbying against it.
In a statement sent out after the vote, Blagojevich repeated his opposition to the tax and urged lawmakers to find another way.
"I believe a tax on working families for transportation is a backdoor fare hike, and I believe the legislature was correct in rejecting that approach," Blagojevich said.
But several area lawmakers feared what will happen if something isn't done soon. State Rep. Suzie Bassi, a Palatine Republican, said most Metra riders have access to other transportation and envisioned them all driving if the train times and prices become inconvenient.
"Do you want to see 70 percent more cars on the road?" Bassi said.
State Rep. Julie Hamos, an Evanston Democrat who sponsored the plan, said she hopes the doomsday scenario won't need to occur in order for lawmakers to take this seriously.
"I reject that as a cynical way to do business in Springfield. I'm hoping we will not get that far," Hamos told reporters. "It should not require pain … for us to take action or tackle the serious issues of the day."
The details of the plan got little public criticism during a lengthy House debate. Rather, many Republican lawmakers said mass transit should be part of a bigger proposal addressing all the state's transportation needs.
"We need to do something about mass transit, but we need to integrate it with a road program," said House Republican leader Tom Cross of Oswego. "You can't do one without the other."
But political differences have kept such a plan from becoming reality for more than five years at the Capitol and there's been little indication a resolution is coming.