The massive federal bill that outlines spending for both highway and public transit projects finally cleared Congress Friday. Local transit officials are happy, though some national observers are a bit more skeptical.
“This is a step forward and gives us a little stability,” Joseph Costello, executive director of the Regional Transportation Authority (RTA) told Progress Illinois.
According to Costello, the bill provides a feasible way for RTA to get additional federal money for projects such as the long overdue extension of the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) Red Line. CTA is under the umbrella of RTA, which also is in charge of the region's suburban trains and buses.
RTA could get federal “New Start” money if they can show to the U.S. Transportation Department that extending the Red Line will probably increase system capacity by 10 percent. Costello anticipates that will not be a problem as CTA is already “oversubscribed” with passengers.
Costello, though, would not say what federal money RTA would apply for, stating that the agency was reviewing its options.
CTA spokesman Lambrini Lukdis pointed out that the bill will help fund the continued Red Line Modernization project, which aims to repair the city’s busiest rail system.
Nationally, the bill, which President Barack Obama has indicated he will sign into law, will cost $127 billion spread over the next 27 months. Out of this, Illinois gets $5.6 billion: $4.1 billion for highways and $1.5 billion for mass transit.
The mass transit funding marks an 11 percent increase over current spending levels, according to a statement from Gov. Pat Quinn’s office. As did Costello, Quinn described the bill as a “step forward.”
Public transit money from the federal transportation bill is for individual, capital projects like repairs. The federal government does not help RTA or any other transit agency with their operating budgets.
Typically, surface transportation bills cover five years of spending.
But Congress repeatedly failed to pass a long-term surface transportation bill since the last package expired in September 2009, instead approving numerous temporary extensions. The past few months featured an extended back-and-forth between the Republican-controlled U.S. House and Democratic-controlled U.S. Senate, with some House Republicans pushing to drastically reduce mass transit outlays.
While overall mass transit funding is slightly increased, the bill sticks with the practice of allocating four times the amount of funds to highways over mass transit, despite growing public transit use. Nationally, highways and roads get $40.4 billion for fiscal year 2013, which started July 1, while public transportation gets $10.5 billion.
The funding disparity led to criticisms from progressive organizations like the Transportation for America coalition that, “This bill represents a definite step backwards, the last gasp of an outdated 20th century program.”
The American Public Transportation Association (APTA), meanwhile offered qualified praise. “It preserves funding, but it really doesn’t address the need for increased investment,” says Rob Healy, vice president for government affairs at APTA.
APTA has released studies indicating increased national use in public transit.
Image: Lake Forest