Bipartisan House Trio Vows Changes in Transportation Bill
Crains Chicago Business/Blog
By Greg Hinz
Three Chicago-area members of Congress — a Chicago Democrat and two suburban Republicans — promise to seek big changes in a pending transportation funding bill that has drawn major fire here.
In a joint press conference, U.S. Reps. Judy Biggert, Robert Dold and Dan Lipinski said the five-year surface transportation bill proposed by House GOP leadership has good points but fails to meet the needs of big, crowded metropolitan areas like Chicago.
The three specifically want to restore the guaranteed 20 percent share of federal gasoline tax receipts that Metra, the Chicago Transit Authority and other transit operators around the country now get. The leadership bill would spend all gas tax receipts on road work, forcing transit to rely on less dependable general federal funds.
The trio also pledged to support amendments allowing transit riders to use pre-tax dollars to pay for commuting costs in the same amount that drivers can and to restore funding for large projects of national significance.
The Chicago area has been politically adept at getting the latter — for instance, for the Create rail project to ease congestion. Officials have been hoping to pay for other projects with such money, including western access to O'Hare International Airport and construction of the Illiana Expressway.
Mr. Dold, a Republican from the north suburban 10th District, appeared last week at a more general press conference with Mr. Lipinski, a Democrat from the Southwest Side. But today was the first public showing by Ms. Biggert, a west suburban Republican.
"The current House bill needs some major road work," said Ms. Biggert, noting that the original transit set-aside was approved by President Ronald Reagan. "The big cities that have these suburbs, they're all concerned" about the impact of the bill.
Mr. Dold said the changes the trio seek have widespread, bipartisan backing.
"We've got business and labor, Democrats and Republicans," he said. "We need to have a long-term surface transportation bill move forward."
Mr. Lipinski noted that local transit operators say the bill as now written could endanger $450 million a year in federal capital funds, money that's needed for projects such as Metra's program to rebuild 22 deficient bridges on its Union Pacific North line.
Leadership is proposing to shift money from transit to roads because gas tax revenues have been declining. But transit advocates say forcing transit to compete with other domestic needs for general federal funds risks leaving them very short — even if Congress adopts a Republican plan to use revenues from expanded off-shore oil drilling.
The transit bill is scheduled to hit the House floor sometime next week. But before then, leadership is expected to agree on major changes before entertaining other possible amendments.
Two other area Republicans, Adam Kinzinger of Joliet and Randy Hultgren of Wheaton, also have called for changes in the pending bill. But a third, House Deputy Whip Peter Roskam of Wheaton, has supported the current bill.
Meanwhile, U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., also had more to say on the subject today.
At his own press conference, the senator urged House Republicans to "go back to (the) drawing board" because their bill would cut not only transit but Amtrak and high-speed rail.
A Senate bill would provide more for all three, but only last two years, not the five years in the House bill.
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