Nationally recognized public transit leaders met in Evanston today with regional transit officials to discuss a transportation environment that would be wonderful for everyone, if only they had the money to pay for it.
Which they don’t.
Visions of integrated bus, rail, and auto systems that would speed riders from point to point with no congestion delays, improving the quality of life, and providing a boost to the economy were the order of the day at the Fourth Annual William O. Lipinski Symposium on Transportation Policy at Northwestern University. Among the invited guests were Evanston Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl, Illinois 17th House District Rep. Robyn Gabel, and 9th District Sen. Jeff Schoenberg.
From left: Infrastructure Technology Director Joseph Schofer, Mrs. David Schulz, Samuel Skinner, and William Lipinski
Chaired by Lipinski himself, who retired in 1985 from Congress after 22 years of representing a southwest Chicago district in the House of Representatives, the symposium focused on “Public Transit for Chicago: A Sustainable Ride to the Future.” The university’s Infrastructure Technology Institute sponsored the event, which included a presentation of the David F. Schulz Award for Outstanding Public Service in Transportation and Infrastructure Policy to former U.S. Secretary of Transportation Samuel F. Skinner, who also served as chief staff director for President George H. W. Bush. Schulz’ widow was on hand to assist in the presentation of the award.
Lipinski noted that one of the landmark events in transportation funding for the U.S. occurred two years after a popular president was elected. The nation was in the middle of the most severe economic downturn since the Great Depression. His approval rating had dropped to 40 percent and his party lost 25 seats in the U.S. House during the midterm elections. Shortly after, however, he signed into law the Surface Transportation Assistance Act that increased the gas tax by five cents and created the Mass Transit account within the Highway Trust Fund to pay for transit programs.
“So on a cold winter’s day in 1982,” said Lipinski, “in the middle of one of the worst recessions this nation has ever had, and in the middle of an election cycle, Ronald Reagan, the Great Communicator, a native Illinoisan, and a Republican, signed into law one of the single largest increases in the highway user fee. It was a momentous event. It showed courage. It showed dedication. It showed leadership.”
The nation is in a similar situation today, he said. “We need – we must – increase the highway user fee. Two federally chartered blue ribbon transportation panels both recommended increases in the gas tax. Each one cent increase would mean an additional $1.5 billion to $1.75 billion for the Highway Trust Fund. Raising the user fee is not easy. I think we can learn something from the Gipper. Leadership means making hard decisions.”
The president of the Chicago Transit Authority, Richard L. Rodriguez, painted a grim picture of funding for mass transit in the region. He said the system is being “slowly strangled” due to lack of adequate funding.
“Capital funding shortfalls,” he said, “have resulted in deferred maintenance, delays in infrastructure improvements, and difficulty in planning, financing, and implementing multi-year projects.”
He cited the Red Line, which feeds into the Purple Line that extends through Evanston to its terminal in Wilmette, as an example.
“The section just south of Howard,” he noted’ “was built in the early 1900s. Stations along this stretch of track are in serious need of being rebuilt from the ground up.” After making numerous repairs, he said, “we have reached a point where rebuilding is the only real solution to the rapidly declining condition.” He called for “funding reform that would provide a reliable and sufficient funding source for transit and alleviate the chronic budget shortfall that continues to increase year after year.”
During a break, Mayor Tisdahl approached Rodriguez and said, “Don’t forget the Purple Line.” The CTA president assured her that he hadn’t forgotten, and that he considers the Purple Line as an extension of the Red Line.