CTA gets green light for $241 million in stimulus projects

The Chicago Transit Authority scored a quick one-two punch this week.

Yesterday, days ahead of the stimulus-package funding deadline, the federal government handed the CTA $241 million for capital projects. Today, a regional planning committee gave the go-ahead for the CTA to start work on them.

Metra will receive $141 million, and the Pace suburban bus line will get $33 million. Chicago-area transit agencies will also receive an additional $245 million in federal capital and planning funds unrelated to the stimulus package.

"This was about as fast as humanly possible," says Tom Garritano, spokesman for the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning. "The clock has started ticking."

He's referring to the "use it or lose it" rule in the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act. The measure requires regional transit systems such as the CTA to commit half of their stimulus money within 180 days. For highway and bridge projects, the deadline is 120 days.

The rest of the money must be spent within the following six months.

CMAP's list of 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.
  • $7.9 million for the new 35th Street Metra station in the Rock Island District, where the Chicago White Sox Play at U.S. Cellular Field. Metra also received 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.
  • Vehicle replacement and repairs at Pace.

At today's committee meeting, most of the gallery was filled with staff members from various government agencies, and not one layperson volunteered to speak during public-comment periods. Since the meeting was at the high-security Sears Tower, visitors needed to call ahead of the meeting to receive a pass.

Under federal guidelines, CMAP needed to approve the projects to allow transit agencies to fund them through the recovery act.

Most of the projects funded under the recovery package were originally scheduled for 2010 and 2011.

"You can't just replace every project that you were going to do this summer anyway," CMAP Executive Director Randy Blankenhorn says. "That doesn't create jobs."

More money needed

Yet in their rush to spend stimulus money and accelerate projects, transit officials say one thing remains clear: They still need more cash.

"It isn't a lot of money," Blankenhorn says of the recovery package. "We really need a capital program in the state of Illinois."

The last time state legislators passed a spending bill for infrastructure capital was 10 years ago, a decade after the previous capital bill came through in 1989.

Last year's state transit bailout, worth about half a billion dollars, was meant for only operating expenses at transit agencies and funded primarily through higher taxes.

Sidney Weseman, division manager for strategic and long-range planning at the Regional Transportation Authority, says that to meet future needs, officials would need a spending bill worth $10 billion over five years.

He says that the federal stimulus package, while helpful, is not enough.

"It doesn't solve our long-term problem," Weseman says. "We've got a lot of junk on the street. The average lifespan of a bus in the city is about 12 years. We've got buses entering 13, 14, 15 years of service."

That plea didn't prompt much sympathy from state Rep. Luis Arroyo (D-Chicago), vice chairman of the House Mass Transit Committee.

"They always come back for money," says Arroyo. "They're mispending their money. They should be safeguarding it. They should have accountability and transparency for how they're spending it."

But Arroyo says he agrees the transit agencies need more money, and would support a spending bill with strong oversight measures.