Screws tighten on mass transit

Could new federal legislation mean the death of transit?

Transportation Management News Chicago Tribune February 09, 2012
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A piece of federal legislation in the works is making Chicago transit directors very nervous, according to the Chicago Tribune.


The legislation in question would prohibit mass-transit projects from getting gasoline tax revenue­­­­––a move that Chicago state and local transportation officials say would be "financially perilous" to Chicago's public transit system.


The measure would jeopardize about $450 million worth of capital projects annually, including Metra's purchase of new cars for one of its lines and the UP North bridge-rebuilding project, Regional Transportation Authority (RTA) Executive Director Joe Costello said.

The bill approved lst Friday by a U.S. House committee would cut off a stream of federal funding that the RTA relies on for these long-term, big-ticket projects, Costello said.


Another school of thought is that the measure is necessary to keep the Highway Trust Fund in the black without raising taxes or piling more debt onto the national deficit. U.S. Republican Rep. Peter Roskam, of Wheaton, voted for the measure for these reasons.


Without additional income, the trust fund may be broke as soon as October, the Congressional Budget Office predicted last week.


The Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT) expressed fears about the measure. A spokesman told the Tribune that IDOT was concerned about “the possible elimination of dedicated funding for mass transit, the overall funding levels contained in the bill and a lack of commitment to high-speed rail.”


By a mostly party line vote, the GOP-controlled House Ways and Means Committee approved a measure that would stop funneling 2.86 cents of the 18.4-cent gasoline tax paid by motorists to public transportation.


Gas-tax revenues have been divided between highway and transit programs under an agreement in place ever since the Reagan administration.


Instead, the bill would set up a one-time $40 billion transfer into a transit account from the general fund.


Roskam voted for the measure, while Democrat Danny Davis, of Chicago, opposed it.


In a statement, Roskam's office said mass transit "will be fully funded upfront 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 (trust) fund's insolvency in two years," the statement said.


"The bill sets a new, responsible course to provide steady funding over the next five years, while also ensuring gas tax revenue paid by Illinoisans is going toward their infrastructure needs."


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