Transit advocates: state funding not enough

As Illinois legislators consider Gov. Pat Quinn's annual budget proposal, transit advocates say the state is falling far short of what's needed to adequately maintain Chicago's existing bus and rail systems.

In his budget, submitted earlier this month, the governor acknowledges that "mass transit systems are in dire need of new investment," and he sets aside $1.5 billion for state transit agencies over five years. Under Quinn's proposal, the new money would come from increases in motor-vehicle license fees.

But transit advocates warn that the new funding would not cover the $1 billion annual cost of maintenance and repairs for existing mass transit in Chicago. They say the federal stimulus package, which endowed Chicago transit authorities with more than $414 million this year, is not a replacement for a much-needed capital spending bill from the state.

"The state hasn’t provided a dime of transit capital funding for five years," says Brian Imus, director of the Illinois Public Interest Research Group. "It’s not a surprise to discover commuters struggling with broken down buses and slow train service."

Imus echoed similar calls for more funding from transit officials across the Chicago area. Executives from the Chicago Transit Authority, Metra commuter rail and Pace suburban-bus system have asked legislators for a new spending bill, and the Regional Transportation Authority, which funds those agencies, is also lobbying the state for long-term capital funding.

The requests for money have raised concerns about accountability and transparency in the funding process, particularly during a down economy.

Rep. Kathy Ryg (D-Vernon Hills) is sponsoring a bill in the state House that would change how the state selects transportation projects based on goals, such as relieving congestion, spurring economic development, and improving safety.

"We need to make sure that that money will be wisely invested," Ryg says. "We're looking for a mechanism by which we're sure they're meaningful projects."

Even with additional accountability measures, legislators must still grapple with how they will find funding for additional transit projects. One source could be an additional fuel tax. Since 1990, motorists in Illinois have paid a 19-cent tax on each gallon of gas, but it goes toward road projects, not mass transit.

Rep. John Bradley (D-Marion) is sponsoring a state House bill that would add 8 cents to the cost of each gallon of gas to fund transportation projects. One aspect of the bill that remains unclear is how much of the tax will fund road projects versus mass transit.

"It's a balancing act, obviously. You have downstate interests, which are primarily roads and bridges, and you have northeastern Illinois, which has a strong interest in mass transit," says Bradley, a downstate legislator. "At the end of the day, everybody wants to get their fair share."

Still, transit officials want Bradley and other legislators to do more. To adequately fund transit needs, transit advocates say the gas tax would need to be about 13 to 16 cents. That's aside from a state capital-spending bill they request and this year's federal stimulus money.

Imus also called for the Illinois Department of Transportation to shift its stimulus money for roads to transit projects. Earlier this month, CTA chairwoman Carole Brown said she had not discussed the possibility of such a shift with IDOT officials.