Where's Superman when transit funding is tied to the track?
By Marni Pyke
When I started reporting on transportation, it was in the midst of the transit funding crisis of 2007-2008. The Chicago Transit Authority, Metra and Pace faced doomsday scenarios of higher fares and/or reduced service because of a cash shortfall.
Turns out this wasn't the first or the last funding crisis because mass transit, I've learned, is the Lois Lane of transportation: always in peril.
The latest threat was a pretty serious one. America pays for its transportation system, including highways, bridges and transit, with a flat 18.4 cent per gallon gasoline tax. With gas consumption down and no increase in the tax, instituted in 1997, the highway trust fund is on the rocks.
Early in February, U.S. House Republicans rolled out a five-year $260 billion funding bill. As the measure went through the sausage-making process, the House Ways and Means Committee stripped away 2.86 cents designated for transit from the 18.4 cent tax. As a result, transit revenues would come from the general fund.
Cue the cries of outrage from Metra, Pace, the CTA and Regional Transit Authority. The bill meant public transit would be “thrown to the lions,” RTA Executive Director Joe Costello told me. Along with the hit to Metra, Pace and the CTA, the legislation approved in the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee would have slashed Amtrak funding by 25 percent, cut money for the Illinois Department of Transportation by $900 million, and reduced a tax break on transit fares.
That got the attention of Republicans Judy Biggert of Hinsdale and Robert Dold of Kenilworth, who both spoke out against the measure.
“We realized as soon as we saw it, this was not good for the suburbs, particularly right now,” said Biggert, referring to rising gas prices, which traditionally means drivers switching to Metra.
Mass transit “is something that's important and we need a stable, steady source of funding,” Dold said.
Rumblings of a revolt by rank and file GOP lawmakers caused Republican leaders to quickly pull the legislation and start a rewrite.
“The House Republicans miscalculated the votes for the bill,” U.S. Rep. Dan Lipinski said.
Why offer up such a flop in the first place? “It seems transit is more of a big city issue, and big cities are seen as more Democratic,” theorized Lipinski, a Western Springs Democrat serving on the Transportation Committee. “But these were issues for suburban Republicans.”
Congressman Peter Roskam, a Wheaton Republican on the Ways and Means Committee, voted for the legislation and a spokeswoman said his position hadn't changed. Under the bill, “mass transit will be fully funded up front ensuring they face no uncertainty over the next five years. The current funding source will not meet future spending needs and would result in the (highway trust) fund's insolvency in two years,” a Roskam statement said.
So what's next?
An 18-month transportation bill appears to be on the menu for this week with restored funding for transit. But what happens with Amtrak, state funding and other damsels in distress is unknown.
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