CTA, Metra vie for stimulus dollars

Hundreds of millions of federal dollars are up for grabs, and Chicago-area transit agencies are finally ready to claim them.

At a meeting tomorrow, the Transportation Committee of the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning will choose whether to approve a $1.6 billion improvement plan that includes projects for the Chicago Transit Authority, Metra commuter rail and Pace suburban buses.

The committee, made up of 30 representatives from various transportation groups around Chicago, meets regularly to discuss ongoing projects and decide on changes. But the meeting tomorrow will have added importance as it will determine which projects will have the chance to secure funds from the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act.

"In terms of the stimulus package, this is new and even unique," CMAP spokesman Tom Garritano says. "It's not business as usual."

The improvement plan's 116 projects include bus and rail-car overhauls and repairs, signal replacements and upgrades, rail-station reconstruction, preventative maintenance, infrastructure renovations and facility improvements for the CTA. The Pace suburban-bus system would receive money for vehicle replacement and repairs.

For Metra commuter rail, the plan includes $7.9 million for the new 35th Street Station in the Rock Island District, east of U.S. Cellular Field, where the Chicago White Sox play. The agency would also receive money for vehicle repairs, replacement of rail lines, station upgrades, commuter-car improvements, bridge renovations and an underground cable from Cook County to Kane County.

It also includes plans for highway, road and bridge improvements.

To be eligible for federal stimulus money, Garritano says, local agencies must coordinate projects on a regional level. CMAP, which serves as the coordinating regional body, must approve the projects before implementing agencies such as the CTA can submit proposals to the federal government.

Holly Ostdick, assistant planner at CMAP, says that under the improvement plan, the agencies are switching from previous federal funding sources to the stimulus package.

According to the plan, CMAP officials anticipated $612 million for projects. They now expect more than $1.6 billion.

Nationally, the federal stimulus package includes $48 billion for transportation infrastructure of highways and bridges, mass transit, rail and aviation, according to the Illinois Department of Transportation. Of that funding, $936 million will go to the state for highway and bridge projects, and $468 million will go toward mass transit.

To secure all of the money, officials must adhere to what they have called "use it or lose it" rules. For transit projects, half of all stimulus money must be obligated for projects within six months of when they become available. For highway and bridge projects, the deadline is two months earlier.

The federal government will distribute money to the states no later than March 10, according to IDOT documents.

Tomorrow's meeting is at 9:30 a.m. at the CMAP offices, 233 S. Wacker Drive, Suite 800 in Chicago.