On Monday, Governor Quinn’s Northeast Illinois Public Transit Taskforce released its final report, underscoring the need for better funding for regional transit. Yesterday, the Center for Neighborhood Technology and the Active Transportation Alliance launched a new campaign, dubbed “Transit Future,” to raise that money via a new Cook County-based revenue stream that would help the region leverage federal dollars.
Transit Future calls on the Cook County Board of Commissioners to create a dedicated funding source for maintaining and expanding the transit system in Chicago and the rest of the county. Creating this revenue stream would allow the region to take advantage of federal funding sources like America Fast Forward, which provides long-term, low interest loans to cities for construction projects.
The campaign is inspired by the successful drive to raise $40 billion for public transportation in Los Angeles, which is bankrolling the largest expansion of transit in the region’s history. That campaign, called Move LA and spearheaded by former LA mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and former Santa Monica mayor Denny Zane, led to voters approving a half-cent sales tax increase in a 2008 referendum called Measure R. By 2013, four new transit lines had opened, with two more under construction.
Villaraigosa and Zane, as well as Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Cook Count Board President Toni Preckwinkle, showed up to support Transit Future at a launch party last night at the University Club of Chicago, 76 East Monroe. A map on display at the event showed the potential for expanding the local rapid transit system.
In addition to well-publicized projects that will extend the South Red Line and build bus rapid transit on Chicago’s Ashland Avenue, the map shows other line extensions and new routes outlined in the region’s GO TO 2040 plan. Existing lines could be expanded to suburban destinations like Old Orchard, Schaumburg, Oak Brook, and Ford City, while new north-south lines could parallel Cicero Avenue and connect O’Hare and Midway airports.
Jacky Grimshaw, vice president for policy at CNT and director of Transit Future, emceed the event. “Building a world-class transit system requires a steady, long-term investment,” she told the crowd. “We’ve been falling short. There are over $20 billion in potential projects that are just sitting on the shelf that will help us to expand and improve our system, so that we can’t afford to fall short any longer.”
Emanuel told the audience that a coordinated effort between the city and county to create dedicated transit funding could unlock the region’s economic potential. “Our ability to recruit new companies, our ability to see companies expand, our ability for families to go from where they live to work, is dependent on a 21st Century public transportation system,” he said. “Because people years ago made a great investment, Chicago had the opportunity to become the city it is. For us to become the city we want to be, we have to continue to make that commitment to our public transportation system.” He noted that the city is already taking advantage of federal transportation loans for projects like the Red Line’s 95th Street station rehab and the Chicago Riverwalk extension.
Villaraigosa told the story of the hard-won battle to raise the LA County sales tax, which is providing the funding source for paying back the $40 billion federal loan. In California, a two-thirds vote is required to pass a ballot initiative. He attributed the strong Democratic turnout in the 2008 election, propelled by Barack Obama’s first run for the White House, with allowing Measure R to narrowly pass. “Because people don’t want to tax themselves,” he said. “They all talk about traffic while they drive two blocks to the market in their single-passenger automobile.”
He joked that, by giving Chicago tips on how to win federal transportation dollars, he was speaking against his own interest. “We took the lion’s share of this money because we got [local] money and we’re putting it up… Y’all ought to be doing the same.”
Zane attributed the success of Measure R to bold leadership from Villaraigosa, as well as support from a broad coalition of business, labor, environmental, and social justice leaders. “We had to take a message to them that this was essential, that Los Angeles was coming to gridlock, and that we had zero billion dollars for additional infrastructure over the next 30 years,” he said. He advised Chicagoans to “build the kind of coalition, the kind of proposal, that people can unite around.”
Preckwinkle said modernizing our transit system is key for the region’s economic viability. “There are areas in Cook County that are critically underserved by public transit, and all but unreachable without a car,” she said. “These areas include suburban employment centers, making it difficult for those who are without a car to reach employment opportunities. This is a burden not only to our residents, but also to our businesses.”
She seemed to imply that she would push for creating a dedicated revenue stream through the county government. “Local revenues will allow us to build a better system [and leverage state and federal dollars],” she said. “In particular, Cook County is committed to playing a larger role in encouraging that support and driving those necessary investments.”
Since, unlike California, we don’t have referenda in Illinois, Active Trans Director Ron Burke acknowledged that it will be important for county board members to feel confident that they have political cover for creating a new funding source. Nine of the 17 commissioners have already signed on to give tentative support to the campaign.
“One of the reasons we’re optimistic that the county board will ultimately adopt a new revenue stream for transit is because we’ve seen this type of effort succeed in lots of cities around the country,” Burke said. “When you tie specific infrastructure projects to a revenue increase, to a fee increase, to a tax increase, voters often get behind it in pretty big numbers. They see how that money’s going to fund X and they see how X is something that they want and need that will help the economy and help them in their day-to-day lives.”
Check out a slideshow on the Transit Future campaign here.