Senate bill poses transportation consequences

By Contributing Writer

By Brandon Smith, contributing writer

The heads of the Chicago Transit Authority and the Regional Transportation Authority have predicted dire consequences for public transportation if serious changes are not made to the House Transportation Bill that is currently stalled in Congress.

Entire sections of the CTA’s bus and rail systems may face drastic spending cutbacks unless the bill H.R. 7, which would authorize funds for federally assisted highway, public transportation and motor safety carrier programs, is amended, said CTA President Forrest Claypool at a Feb. 24 press conference at the U.S. Courthouse for the Northern District of Illinois, 219 S. Dearborn St.

“Everyone can imagine what Lake Shore Drive would be downtown: gridlock,” Claypool said. “It would impact businesses, people’s jobs and the quality of life of our citizens. Public transit should not be treated as an alternative form of investment. It’s just common sense.”

The press conference was called to criticize the Republican-sponsored bill and was attended by both members of the private sector and political arena, including U.S. Representatives Judy Biggert, R–Ill., Robert Dold, R–Ill., and Daniel Lipinski, D–Ill.

Lipinski said one vital change that needs to be made is restoring the fair transit benefit, which allows deductions of mass transit expenses from pre-tax income, and noted that the current state of the bill only rewards those who drive into the city.

The S. 1813 bill, a two-year, $109 billion plan, was passed March 14 by the U.S. Senate to help maintain funding of mass transit systems. According to the RTA, the plan has come at a vital time.

“We applaud the U.S. Senate for keeping public transportation moving forward in this time of economic difficulty, increased ridership and soaring gas prices,” said RTA Executive Director Joseph G. Costello in a written statement.

According to him, the short-term plan will not be enough to ensure public transportation systems continue to receive the federal support they need.

“The time has come for the House of Representatives to pass a bipartisan measure with the same elements as S. 1813 so that the vital investment in American jobs and in our future can continue uninterrupted,” Costello said.

RTA Chairman John Gates Jr. also noted the importance of federal backing for public transportation.

“We rely on a steady, reliable flow of federal dollars to fund our capital needs in this area,” Gates said. “If funding does not go back to a reliable state, it will become much more expensive—if not impossible—to raise the capital to put this system back into a good state of repair.”

Public transportation is an extremely important commodity in any city, Gates said, noting that buses and trains help offset traffic congestion, parking fees and pollution in densely populated areas.

According to him, a serious problem with the current transportation bill is that it aims to subsidize highway systems, contributing to more motor vehicles on the roads and increasing parking fees throughout the state. Also, transit systems like the CTA would lose their rights to special federal grants appropriated for maintenance of train and bus depots and the trains and buses themselves.

“We want to make sure that the legislation returns to a state which makes the CTA eligible for various grants that the current legislation would not,” Gates said.

Dold agreed and said one problem is that there is not enough money in the Highway Transportation Fund to finance a sufficient transportation bill.

“The initial proposal was 20 to 30 percent lower funding [to public transit] and the reaction against that was so strong that it was pulled back,” he said.

Dold also stressed the vital role of transportation infrastructure in America and the importance of constructing a bill that supports that system.

“If you think about transportation infrastructure, it is so crucial to our economy,” he said. “We have our airports, our ports, roads, bridges and rails, and they are critical to moving goods and services and people.”