Setting a timeline for the CTA’s No. 1 improvement project – the multibillion-dollar replacement of the Red Line – hinges on negotiations that will begin next week in Congress over a new transportation funding bill, CTA president Forrest Claypool said Wednesday.
Claypool and other Chicago-area transportation officials outlined their top priorities, which include faster CTA, Metra and Amtrak train service, introducing bus rapid transit on traffic-clogged city and suburban corridors, and reducing pollution caused by vehicle emissions, during a meeting with U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D- Ill., at Union Station.
It wasn’t anything Durbin hadn’t heard previously in closed-door meetings with the officials.
But Wednesday’s session, which was open to the news media, was aimed at putting a high public profile, and elevating the stakes, on negotiations that start next Tuesday among a 40-member congressional conference committee seeking to resolve major differences between separate Senate and House transportation spending proposals.
Pressure is mounting to come up with a plan and avoid an unprecedented reduction in transportation funding.
The current funding legislation expired in 2009 and has been temporarily extended numerous times.
Some lawmakers are hopeful that, despite political gridlock in Washington and an election on the horizon, a final bill can be approved by June 30, when the government’s authority to spend money for roads and mass transit from the highway trust fund expires.
Yet others, including U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, don’t expect a final deal until 2013.
Voicing the sentiment of most members of the Illinois congressional delegation, Durbin, who is a member of the conference committee, said the Senate bill represents “the best starting point.’’
He said the House legislation would slash funding for critical transportation initiatives and be “disastrous for Illinois.’’
Claypool said the House bill “essentially decimates mass transit,’’ while the Senate version incrementally increases capital improvement funding and makes funding provisions for older transit systems, like the CTA and its more than 100-year-old Red Line, to be rebuilt.
“We are literally going to build a brand new railroad there,’’ Claypool said about the CTA Red and Purple Line modernization plan that ranges from $2 billion to more than $4 billion, depending on various options for new stations and other upgrades.
That’s just for the stretch from north of Belmont through Evanston. Claypool said the whole line will need to be replaced.
Under existing federal transit rules and the House proposal, the Red Line replacement wouldn’t be eligible for “new starts” funding because the project is on an existing transit line.
The Senate bill, however, “recognizes common sense and says you’re building a new railroad,’’ Claypool said. “It just happens to be within the existing right of way that is serving an increasing number of riders each year, despite its deteriorating condition.’’
The CTA also cannot move forward to construct its proposed Red Line extension to 130th Street without federal support.
The project is estimated to cost more than $1.4 billion.
The Senate in March approved a $109 billion transportation spending plan for two years that would give states more discretion about how they spend federal dollars.
It would also maintain existing funding levels for Illinois transportation projects, officials said.
The House legislation would provide $260 billion over five years.
It was pulled from consideration due to opposition to key provisions, including the elimination of a dedicated gas tax revenue funding source for mass transit and bicycle and pedestrian safety projects.
The House version also would have reduced Illinois’ share of highway funds and cut back on grants to fight pollution and traffic congestion.
Durbin and U.S. Rep. Jerry Costello, D-Ill., who is also a member of the transportation conference committee, this week asked other members of the Illinois congressional delegation to submit their priorities for job-creating transportation projects that will keep Illinois the transportation hub of the nation.
“There are significant needs for our state’s roads, bridges, transit and rail systems, and we must be serious about securing a meaningful, sustainable transportation funding plan to promote our economic future,’’ Durbin and Costello said in a letter to the delegation.
The conference committee will negotiate a final transportation bill that will be voted on by the House and Senate and sent to President Barack Obama for his signature.
Other participants in Wednesday’s meeting with Durbin were Metra executive director Alex Clifford, RTA executive director Joe Costello, IDOT Secretary Ann Schneider, Chicago Transportation Commissioner Gabe Klein, Amtrak government affairs official Ray Lang, Illinois Tollway executive director Kristi Lafleur and Pace board chairman Richard Kwasneski.