Re-elect Dan Lipinski Congressman

End of the Line for Free Transit Rides for Seniors?

Offering little hope of new funding for buses and trains in the Chicago region, the state's top legislative leaders from both parties agree on one point -- free rides for senior citizens must be curtailed.

But they disagree on whether voters would support raising the state motor fuel tax to help mass transit agencies.

House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, said he expects the General Assembly will roll back the free transit rides for seniors that former Gov. Rod Blagojevich insisted on in exchange for his support of a small sales-tax increase for mass transit in 2008.

"My expectation is that eventually we will go back to a system where those who are needy are the ones who get consideration on the fares on mass transit,'' Madigan said at at the fourth annual William Lipinski transportation policy symposium at Northwestern University.

Madigan's Republican counterparts agreed that a financial means test to determine who qualifies for free rides, which both the House and Senate approved, was a fair approach.
But Gov. Pat Quinn vowed during the just-ended campaign to veto any attempt to end free rides.

"Hopefully, we'll be able to pass that bill either in the veto session or the spring session,'' said State Sen. Christine Radogno, R-Lemont. "If we can't do something that simple, why should we ask taxpayers to spend anything more?''

The symposium was aimed at brainstorming solutions to the budget crisis facing the CTA, Metra and Pace as well as improving the quality of service to transit customers.

While the lawmakers said the growing state budget deficit will make bailing out the transit agencies a low priority in the next legislative session, Madigan expressed support for raising the state motor fuels tax.

"I think we ought to raise that tax,'' Madigan told the symposium, which was aimed at coming up with ideas to fix the budget crisis facing the CTA, Metra and Pace as well as improving the quality of service to transit customers.

Senate President John Cullerton, D-Chicago, acknowledged the difficulty of lining up public support for a gas tax hike, but he said that because of fluctuations in gas prices "people wouldn't know we were the ones who did it.''

The state gas tax has stood at 19 cents a gallons since 1991.

The theme of the day was struck by Lipinski, the former longtime Illinois congressman, who warned that mass transit in northeastern Illinois "will crumble" if new sources of revenue are not found to keep infrastructure -- traincars, bridges, tracks, buses and other equipment -- in a state of good repair.

Lipinski, who was instrumental in bringing millions of federal dollars to the Chicago area for such projects as the Orange Line to Midway Airport, said local leaders and transit riders needed to pressure legislators in Springfield to provide funding for capital needs.

The outlook in Washington for new federal dollars was not much better, said U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Oregon, who said the nation's transit systems faced $80 billion worth of unfunded capital projects.

With new members of Congress who are wary of increasing federal spending, "the crystal ball (for transportation) is very cloudy at the moment," DeFazio said.

The CTA, said CTA President Richard Rodriguez, has $10 billion worth of capital needs and is "becoming strangled due to a lack of funding."

U.S. Rep. Dan Lipinski, D-Ill., who took over his father's seat in Congress, said new sources of revenue other than the federal gasoline tax would need to be considered.

One suggestion, Lipinski said, is imposing a per-barrel tax on oil. This tax would be more likely borne "higher upstream" by oil-producing nations and refiners, rather than by customers at the gas pumps, he said.

A $1-per-barrel tax could raise $26 billion for public transportation over six years, DeFazio said.

Former U.S. Transportation Secretary Sam Skinner, who was honored by the symposium for his years of public service, said clearer accountability was crucial in future spending on public projects.

Skinner lauded New Jersey Gov. Chris Cristie for having "the courage to say no" in stopping the state's participation in a proposed new tunnel under the Hudson River to New York City.


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