Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Mass transit stalls on the tracks

by Bethany Jaeger and Patrick O'Brien
It felt more like the end of a legislative session than it did the first day of a new spring session. A full day and night of action still leaves mass transit riders across the state not knowing whether their services will continue at full speed, or in some cases, at all. The Illinois House approved a plan that would raise the regional sales tax to avert severe service cuts in Chicago and the suburbs, but a similar measure lost in the Senate by a single vote. They’ll have to reconvene Thursday and try again. But neither version is a bill the governor would sign as is.

Chicago-area transit agencies warn of a doomsday scenario of massive layoffs, service cuts of more than half of all bus lines and fare increases if the legislature doesn’t approve a major funding mechanism by January 20. Otherwise, the agency would have a $400 million budget deficit.

The measure approved by the House, SB 572, would rebuild the agencies’ financial situation by increasing a regional sales tax. Such supporters as Chicago-area Democrats say it’s a local solution for a local problem, but some suburban lawmakers who oppose the idea say the counties around Chicago already are overtaxed.

The House version also would garner more money by allowing the Chicago City Council to levy a real estate transfer tax that buyers or sellers would have to pay. And it makes internal changes about the governance of the agencies and reforms the system’s pension and health care benefits, whose costs are threatening the agencies’ ability to operate.

Fixing those problems is “a serious investment in the future of this region,” said Rep. Julie Hamos, the Evanston Democrat who spearheaded the effort. “It is an economic development engine. It is what makes this region work.”

It took a ton of work to come to this compromise. The measure failed twice last year and went through 14 changes after months of negotiations. “I’m proud of it,” Hamos said on the House floor. “We worked it out in a bipartisan, open, collaborative process.”

But there’s still a long way to go. Even if the House and Senate agree on the same way to help mass transit, Gov. Rod Blagojevich repeatedly vows not to raise general state taxes. His spokeswoman, Rebecca Rausch, said late Wednesday night that if a regional sales tax plan lands on the governor’s desk, he will “have ideas about how to improve it.” That means the measure would have to go through another round of votes in each chamber, taking more time and leaving room for more complications. And the more time lawmakers spend in Springfield, the less time they have to campaign back in their districts before the February 5 primary election.

Complicating the matter in the Senate is that downstate lawmakers still won't support a Chicago-area transit plan while the entire state suffers from dilapidated roads and bridges and overcrowded schools. They fear a capital bill that would fix those problems is falling by the wayside. Rep. Sidney Mathias, a Buffalo Grove Republican, said the Chicago transit agencies “won’t be able to use their trains and buses without wheels” if a capital bill doesn’t come to fruition.

As pointed out by Jim Reilly, chairman of the Regional Transportation Authority, the pressure is on to act on mass transit in the next few weeks. “I think that the deadline of [January] 20th coupled with the fact that there’s a primary on February 5, something will happen.” Chicago-area lawmakers will have a heck of a time trying to woo constituents affected by mass transit cuts if the legislature fails to address the funding problem before then.

No comments: