Funding Progress Could Bring Fix for Union Station
A breakthrough this week by U.S. House and Senate negotiators means likely passage of a five-year, $281 billion transportation bill paying for highways and transit.
Close to home, approval would mean financing to help improve the interior of Union Station and to ease freight congestion that delays Metra trains and traffic in the region, lawmakers said Tuesday.
After months of stalling, talks by members of a conference committee went late Monday night, and the final product -- dubbed the Fixing America's Surface Transportation Act -- would go first to the House and Senate, then to President Obama's desk.
The law would give Illinois about $7.5 billion over five years for roads, or about $1.5 billion a year, which is an increase from $1.37 billion in 2015.
Illinois would also receive nearly $3 billion in transit support over five years, an 11 percent increase compared to 2015, with the opportunity for more funding through competitive grant programs that increase aid for buses.
"While these federal funds are only a modest increase, they are targeted in ways that can significantly benefit the multimodal movement of people and goods in metropolitan Chicago," Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning Executive Director Joseph Szabo said.
The law would provide a $199 million pot of grant money that commuter railroads could compete for to subsidize an expensive automatic braking system required on trains.
The $199 million "is not enough to solve the problem, but at least it will allow entities like Metra who are struggling to come up with money to apply for some help," said U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, a Springfield Democrat and one of the negotiators.
There's also $10.7 billion for freight rail including $4.5 billion to $5 billion in competitive grants. That's an improvement that will help "build underpasses for roads that cross rail lines," said U.S. Rep Dan Lipinski, a Western Springs Democrat and one of the negotiators.
Illinois lawmakers also highlighted changes that include eliminating red tape to a low-interest federal loan program. As a result Chicago could apply to borrow money for a Union Station makeover designed to reduce overcrowding and create a more comfortable space for Metra and Amtrak riders along with economic development such as a hotel.
"By unlocking access to this underutilized federal loan, Chicago can unlock the potential of Union Station," said U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk, a Highland Park Republican.
The previous transportation funding bill expired this summer, and several short-term extensions occurred with the latest set to end Friday.
Congress did not, however, tackle the dwindling highway trust fund or jump on suggestions to index gas prices.
"That would have been too obvious," said Durbin, noting he had just paid $1.67 for a gallon of gas downstate. Instead, funding for FAST would come from current gas taxes and a variety of sources such as indexing customs fees, federal reserve surpluses, tax compliance fees and others.
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