Partisan Clash Jeopardizing Local Transportation Projects - Vote Expected This Week on Transportation Bill
By Richard Wronski
A largely partisan clash in Washington over federal funding for mass transit could jeopardize up to $450 million a year for Chicago-area bus and train projects, transportation officials said Monday.
The funding debate also has caused a rift in the ranks of area Republican members of Congress, who find themselves torn between loyalty to GOP leaders in Washington and pressure from Chicago transit agencies.
The House is expected to vote this week on a major transportation bill that could drastically change the way agencies such as the CTA, Metra and Pace get money to buy new buses, rebuild tracks and maintain equipment.
Officials say long-range, big-ticket projects like Metra's rebuilding of Union Pacific North line bridges and the CTA's plan to rehabilitate Red and Purple Line stations are threatened.
The legislation would curtail the use of motor fuel tax money for mass transit. Instead, that revenue would be devoted entirely to roads and bridges. Mass transit would be funded for five years by a one-time general appropriation of $40 billion, the source of which is yet to be determined.
Supporters say the measure is needed to keep the federal highway trust fund solvent without raising fuel taxes.
Critics such as Democratic U.S. Rep. Dan Lipinski say the bill would endanger mass transit projects and deprive agencies of an assured source of revenue.
"The House Republican bill fails Chicagoland, Illinois and our nation," Lipinski said Monday at a news conference at the Ogilvie Transportation Center. "It is bad news for everyone in the region — Democrats and Republicans, business and labor, city, suburban and blue collar-county residents," he said. "Drivers, bus riders, train riders, pedestrians and bike riders."
Democratic members of Congress oppose tossing out the current funding agreement, which has been in place for 30 years. Republicans, who control the House, are pushing for a new plan they say is more fiscally responsible, beneficial to highways and less wasteful.
With the Chicago area highly dependent on federal money for public transportation, transit agencies are calling on local Congress members to keep the status quo.
In addition to the Democrats, three of the seven GOP representatives — Judy Biggert, Robert Dold and Adam Kinzinger — say they will not support the measure.
Rep. Peter Roskam favors the bill, while Joe Walsh, Randy Hultgren and Don Manzullo have yet to say how they will vote.
"When we look at transportation infrastructure, this is not a Republican or a Democratic issue. It's an American issue," Dold said Monday, speaking at the same news conference as Lipinski.
Biggert "does not support the House bill in its current form due to her concerns with its overall funding for Illinois, as well as its potential impact on long-term planning for Chicago and suburban transit systems," according to her office.
Roskam supported the measure when it passed the Ways and Means Committee on Feb. 3.
Proponents say the highway trust fund, created in 1956 to build the interstate highway system, is running out of money because of diversions to mass transit and "unrelated purposes" like national parks and forests, bicycle trails, earmarks, urban revitalization and historic preservation.
The trust fund has "lost its sense of purpose," according to the conservative Heritage Foundation. After a $23 billion surplus in 2000, the fund now has a projected cumulative deficit of $93.9 billion for 2013 to 2020, the foundation reported.
The pace of incoming revenue has slowed down significantly due to more energy-efficient cars and trucks on the roads and a decline in vehicle miles traveled in the U.S. as the result of higher gas prices. These two factors are the big reasons the trust fund is going broke, experts say.
Contribute Volunteer Lawn Sign Get Updates