By Jamey Dunn
Illinois Democratic officials today used the ground breaking of a project aimed at reducing rail congestion to urge support of President Barack Obama’s jobs plan.
Gov. Pat Quinn was joined by several of Illinois’ political elite, such as Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin and U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush, to kick off the so-called Englewood Flyover, a bridge meant to untangle one of the state’s worst snarls of rail traffic. According to figures from Quinn’s office, each day,14 Amtrak trains, 78 Metra trains and 46 Norfolk-Southern freight trains pass through the area where Norfolk Southern Railway and Metra Rock Island District Line tracks cross near 63rd Street and State Street in the neighborhood of Englewood. The project, scheduled for completion in 2014, will run three Metra tracks over the freight traffic.
“When you talk about trains, that’s really what defines our state. We have just about every railroad in the country crisscrossing Illinois,” Quinn said at the Chicago event. “We want to eliminate delays and end bottlenecks and make things faster for freight and for passengers. We take literally thousands of tons of freight through this very area every single day.”
The overpass will also create room for Amtrak trains capable of travelling up to 110 miles per hour. “We want to build a fast train from Chicago to St. Louis,” Quinn said. “One of the keys to making that possible is to eliminate the bottlenecks right here.”
The $133 million project will be funded with about $6.6 million from Illinois’ capital construction legislation, which leveraged $126 million in federal dollars. A group of railroads kicked in more than $3 million for design costs through the Chicago Region Environmental and Transportation Efficiency Program (CREATE).
U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood, a Republican from Peoria, said more money will be needed to complete to project, and he urged lawmakers to approve the jobs creation package that Obama presented before a joint session of Congress last month. “This project will continue to get funding [if Congress passes the plan]. We don’t have all the money for this project right now. We have a good share of it, but we know that it needs a lot more money that can really come about as a result of the American Jobs Act,” LaHood said. “This project is also illustrative of what can happen other places in America if the Congress were to pass the American jobs Act.”
The president’s plan includes a cut to payroll taxes, an extension of unemployment benefits, spending for new infrastructure projects, incentives for businesses that hire the long-term unemployed and money for local governments to fund salaries for teachers and first responders.
Durbin also pointed to the Englewood project and the estimated 1,500 construction jobs he says it will create as an example of a positive inroad against the state’s unemployment rate, which has hovered recently around 9 percent. “We need these jobs. They’re good paying jobs right here at home — that pay a living wage with benefits. That’s what we need for the future of American.”
Durbin called on Republicans in the U.S. Senate to back the president’s legislation when it comes up for a procedural vote in the chamber tomorrow. “This much I can guarantee you. We’re going to produce an overwhelming number of votes on the Democratic side for the president’s bill. But this much I can guarantee you as well: Without the support of Republican senators, the president’s jobs bill will not pass. That’s a reality. We need bipartisan support on the floor of the Senate tomorrow. … Tomorrow is the test.”
The bill has been widely panned by Republicans in the Senate and the House, who say that it relies on accounting gimmicks and unfair taxes on the wealthy for funding. After Obama introduced his plan, U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk, a Republican from Illinois, said he support some aspects, such as rolling back regulations on some businesses and entering into trade agreements with foreign countries. "Some parts of the president's proposal should receive quick, bipartisan action, like tax reform, trade agreements with South Korea, Colombia, and Panama and enactment of regulatory relief for businesses,” Kirk said in a written statement.
However, Kirk was less than thrilled about Obama’s plans to pay for the spending in the bill and cut the deficit. "We need the president to endorse bipartisan ways to reduce federal borrowing, runaway spending, entitlement growth and closing loopholes through tax reform. I am concerned that the president is pushing a formula of partisan tax hikes and budget gimmicks. Tax hikes made the Great Depression vastly worse.”
Members of House Republican leadership agree that the taxes proposed to fund the plan would stymie economic growth. U.S. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, a Republican from Virginia, has described the bill as “dead.” It seems unlikely that the package in its current form will ever make it to a floor vote in the Republican controlled U.S. House.