The Regional Transportation Authority is hoping to get as much as $675 million from the Obama Administration early next year for a variety of capital projects.
That additional money, if approved and distributed, would more than double the $480 million the RTA is slated to approve for public transit projects in the region next year. The money would come as part of a massive federal economic stimulus bill, which is in the earliest stages of discussion.
The RTA is the parent agency of the Chicago Transit Authority, Metra and Pace. Its Board of Directors is slated to approve a $1.3 billion budget Thursday for the coming year, which includes the budget the CTA passed last month that would raise fares for almost all riders. The potential $675 million windfall is not included in the budget.
For years, the RTA has bemoaned the lack of state funding for large capital improvement projects like buying new railcars and rebuilding deteriorating tracks. The $480 million budgeted for next year for capital improvements is less than half of what would have to be spent just to keep CTA, Metra and Pace functioning as they are now, says Steve Schlickman, the RTA’s executive director.
“We should be investing at least $1 billion per year to maintain the system in its current state of repair — or should I say disrepair,” he says.
The additional federal money would be a big shot in the arm, officials say. The $675 million list includes only projects that the RTA could start in the first half of 2009, an aggressive timeline assuming money starts flowing by March.
“That would be more than doubling our capital program in one year,” Schlickman says. “I must admit that’s probably all we can immediately handle on such short notice, but we’re pretty confident all these projects can get underway pretty quickly.”
The current budget sets aside funds for the CTA to begin rehabbing some of its oldest railcars and buy a few new ones. The federal infusion would let the CTA tackle $250 million worth of projects to eliminate slow zones in the Blue Line subway and the Dan Ryan section of the Red Line.
The extra federal funds would also buy 200 new hybrid CTA buses costing $160 million — compared to just $7 million for new buses in the current budget.
Metra would spend a large chunk of money, about $125 million, rebuilding a series of deteriorating bridges along the Union Pacific North line. And it would be able to rebuild 40 of its locomotives.
Pace would use its share of the funds to buy about 600 buses, vans and other transit vehicles.
News of the hoped-for federal infusion came during the last of 26 public hearings on the RTA’s budget this morning. As at previous hearings, citizens expressed concerns about fare increases.
“A periodic fare increase is a very bad thing and is not a mandate,” says commuter Charles Paidock, who disputes the RTA’s assertion that it needs to increase fares to meet state requirements that fare boxes bring in half of the system’s revenue.
Higher fares alienate the people who need public transit the most, says Michael Pitula, a community organizer in Little Village.
“We need to find ways to keep the system affordable for low-income, system-dependent riders,” he says.
Peter Sachs is a Chicago-based journalist.