An ongoing debate over how state government should assist the Chicago-area's financially strapped mass-transit system focuses mostly on northeastern Illinois, but downstate transportation systems also could benefit by reaping millions of dollars more. -- With chart at the end of the story.
An ongoing debate over how state government should assist the Chicago-area's financially strapped mass-transit system focuses mostly on northeastern Illinois, but downstate transportation systems also could benefit by reaping millions of dollars more. First, though, lawmakers must manage to agree on a transit-assistance plan. It's among the issues likely to be discussed when the General Assembly returns to Springfield for the fall "veto session" scheduled for Tuesday through Thursday and Oct. 10 to 12. "I think that the (Chicago Transit Authority) is in such a position that they've got to come up with something, or else you're going to cut back on the service," said Sen. Dale Risinger, R-Peoria. "And if you cut back on the service, you're going to have a lot of people that can't get to work." Such a scenario would create "a pretty major crisis in the city," he said. In early September, the Illinois House of Representatives voted on legislation to provide more than $400 million for Chicago, suburban and downstate transit systems. The funding sources would have been higher sales taxes in Cook and the collar counties of DuPage, Kane, Lake, McHenry and Will, as well as a higher real-estate transfer tax in Chicago. The legislation, Senate Bill 572, garnered 61 “yes” votes in the House, but it needed 71 to pass. Supporters of the bill, which also included about $27 million for downstate transit systems, said they weren't giving up. One part of the bill calls for ensuring that current participants in the Downstate Operating Assistance Program -- which includes transit systems in places such as Springfield, Rockford and Peoria -- receive state reimbursement for 55 percent of their "eligible operating expenses." That would carry a price tag of about $84.5 million, or about $5 million more than called for in Gov. Rod Blagojevich's budget for the 2008 fiscal year, according to the Illinois Public Transportation Association, which supports increased funding for the downstate transportation systems. Another component of the measure would boost the reimbursement levels to 65 percent in the 2009 fiscal year. Doing that would cost about $105.8 million, the IPTA says. A similar piece of legislation awaits action in the Illinois Senate but hasn't come up for a floor vote. Linda Tisdale, managing director of the Springfield Mass Transit District, said that extra state funds would help the SMTD wipe out a budget deficit and buy more equipment, leading to expanded services. As of January, 60 percent of the SMTD's bus fleet -- about 32 buses -- will be eligible for replacement because of their age, Tisdale said. The average life of one of the vehicles is 12 years, she said. The district has ordered four buses but cannot afford any more at present. Tisdale said that while the SMTD supports meeting the needs of Chicago-area mass transit, "We have a need, too, and we would like to see some of the assistance come downstate." "We're all under the gun. We all need vehicles," Tisdale said, noting that operating expenses, especially the cost of fuel, keep rising. Linda Podeschi, executive director of the Illinois Public Transportation Association, said even if the House bill or a similar measure eventually becomes law and sends extra money to downstate transportation systems, that won't be a cure-all. She said that small urban and rural transportation systems estimate it would cost more than $300 million to fill their capital needs -- buses, buildings and the like -- through 2009. Any Chicago-area transit bailout that lawmakers might OK also will have to address some of downstate Illinois' transportation needs, said Senate Majority Leader Debbie Halvorson, D-Crete. "If we're going to have a mass-transit or some sort of transit bill, it cannot be geared to only one part of the state," she said. "It has to be beneficial for everybody." Adriana Colindres can be reached at 217-782-6292 or Adriana.firstname.lastname@example.org. CHART Here are some examples of the increased state funding that could go toward downstate transit needs if lawmakers agree on legislation that also would bail out the Chicago-area's mass-transit system. The percentages refer to the rate of reimbursement. For instance, legislation proposes that state government reimburse transit districts at a rate of 65 percent of eligible operating expenses, up from the present level of 55 percent. Community/ FY2008 Governor's Proposed Budget/ At 55 percent / At 65 percent Greater Peoria/ $9,227,500 / $9,666,910 / $11,424,530 Rockford / $6,553,800 / $6,865,870 / $8,114,210 Springfield / $6,069,900 / $6,676,890 / $7,890,870 Bloomington-Normal / $3,404,600 / $3,745,005 / $4,425,915 Pekin / $447,500 / $492,250 / $581,750 Galesburg / $677,700 / $745,470 / $881,010 Macomb / $877,300 / $877,350 / $1,036,868 SOURCE: Illinois Public Transportation Association.