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Illinois congressmen want transportation bill changes

U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., speaks during a news conference in the Great Hall at Union Station Tuesday in Chicago. Durbin said Republicans in the U.S. House should start over rather than push forward with a troubled bill on long-term funding for transportation. (AP Photo/M. Spencer Green)

By JASON KEYSER
The Associated Press

2/22/2012

CHICAGO — A bipartisan group of Illinois Congress members proposed changes Tuesday to a U.S. House transportation bill that critics say would deprive the state of hundreds of millions of dollars in highway funds and jeopardize Chicago's transit system.

Illinois is a center of opposition to the bill because of the state's dependence on railways and the city's transit network, the second-largest in the country. Ensuring the state's transit funding is crucial because any breakdown in the national hub's infrastructure can ripple across the country, the Congress members argued.

"Without this steady funding, any long-term planning and investment in our transportation system could fall victim to the shifting winds and political gridlock in Washington," said U.S. Rep. Judy Biggert, a Republican.

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Biggert joined U.S. Rep Robert Dold, a fellow Republican, and U.S. Rep. Daniel Lipinski, a Democrat, to announce amendments they are backing to the 4 1/2 -year, $260 billion bill in the Republican-led House.

The bill has drawn the most fire for requiring that all money raised through federal fuel taxes be spent on highway programs, denying a guaranteed portion that now goes to pay for mass transit. The Illinois officials' proposal would restore that guarantee.

They also seek money for large transportation projects in the state that have national significance, such as a Chicago-area program to untangle freight and passenger rail lines where delays can reverberate throughout the country.

The House members also want to assure that transit riders continue to receive a fair pre-tax benefit for their transportation costs to help ease road congestion. Under the GOP bill, commuters who drive into the city stand to get more of a tax benefit.

House Republicans had hoped to pass the bill last week, but final action was delayed until after this week's congressional recess as they seek to shore up support. Hundreds of amendments have been proposed.

"The House Republican transportation bill declares war on Illinois, Chicago and mass transit across America," said Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, promoting an alternative, two-year Senate bill at a separate appearance.

Transit programs have received a share of gas tax revenues since the Reagan administration. They could still be paid for with money from the general treasury, but without a guaranteed income source, they would be more vulnerable to budget cuts.

John Gates, chairman of the Regional Transportation Authority, which oversees budgets for Chicago's transit agencies, noted that Moody's has warned that the House bill could harm the RTA's bond rating, increasing its costs for borrowing.

"We are very concerned that this will cost us millions and millions of dollars a year," he said.

Alex Clifford, chief executive of the Metra trains that extend out to Chicago's suburbs, said the House bill would endanger projects like the $185 million program to replace 22 bridges that reduce congestion along a section of the Union Pacific rail line north of Chicago.

The Chicago Transit Authority got roughly $232 million in federal money in 2011. As an example of the kinds of projects that would be vulnerable, the CTA is spending $38.3 million in federal money this year to buy new buses.

Another $137 million is going to bond and debt payments, most of which funded past work to speed up trains and buy new rail cars on the line between downtown and O'Hare International Airport.

Kevin Jones of The Trucker staff can be reached for comment at kevinj@thetrucker.com.

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