PI Original Adam Doster Wednesday March 25th, 2009, 2:40pm

Does Quinn's Capital Plan Shortchange Mass Transit?

Gov. Pat Quinn is intent on passing his capital infrastructure plan (dubbed "Illinois Jobs Now!") in order to boost the Illinois economy. He also suggested early in his tenure that he wants any such initiative to focus on "renewable energy." But does the ...

Gov. Pat Quinn is intent on passing his capital infrastructure plan (dubbed "Illinois Jobs Now!") in order to boost the Illinois economy. He also suggested early in his tenure that he wants any such initiative to focus on "renewable energy." But does the proposal (PDF) he introduced last week shortchange mass transit, one of the most environmentally and economically logical investments any government can make? Transit advocates sure seem to think so.

Quinn's plan sets aside about $19 billion for transportation projects over the next five years: $14 billion for road and bridge maintenance and $4.6 billion for mass transit agencies to "purchase buses and rail cars, build train stations, bus garages and rail yards, and reconstruct, commuter rail bridges and elevated rail structures." Of that money, only $1.5 billion comes in the form of state improvements; the federal government throws in the rest via short-term stimulus funds and regular appropriations.

In an email yesterday, House Mass Transit Committee chairwoman Rep. Julie Hamos pointed out that the 3:1 roads-to-transit funding ratio is much worse for transit than the 2:1 ratios in past capital programs.  Indeed, when we talked to Illinois Sierra Club director Jack Darin last month, he identified mass transit expansion as one of the top priorities for a "green" capital plan, saying that "a 2:1 transit-to-highway ratio in Illinois would be a good start."

We should note that, while it's not included in his current budget, Quinn and Sen. Dick Durbin are currently pursuing an estimated $500 million in high-speed rail funding set aside as part of the stimulus bill.  So it's clear that the governor understands the urgent need for serious transit upgrades.  It's just unfortunate that his underlying plan doesn't better reflect this reality.

As a point of comparison, Regional Transportation Authority (RTA) Executive Director Steve Schlickman told WGIL radio in Galesburg that, under Gov. George Ryan's Illinois FIRST program, the RTA received about $2 billion from the state in 1999. Therefore, Quinn's expenditure for the agency is about half of what it received 10 years ago (when adjusted for inflation). Bethany Jaeger has more:

Under Quinn’s proposed budget, the Chicago-area Regional Transportation Authority would lose $32 million in grants for operating assistance. Public transportation also would lose about $42 million, but that’s based on decreased sales tax revenues. Downstate transportation districts, on the other hand, would see an increase of about $24 million.

Hamos and Senate Transportation Committee chair Sen. Martin Sandoval  are already pushing for more transit funding. We'll be watching to see if other lawmakers follow suit.

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