CNT, Active Trans to County: If You’re Going to Raise Sales Tax, Fund Transit

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Cook County board president Toni Preckwinkle and CNT vice president Jacky Grimshaw/Photo: CNT

Streetsblog Chicago is on vacation from July 13-17 and will resume publication of Today’s Headlines and daily articles on Monday, July 20. We’ll keep in touch this week via social media and occasional posts. In the meantime, here’s an excerpt from this week’s Checkerboard City, John’s transportation column, which appears in print in Newcity Magazine.  

Back in 2010, when Toni Preckwinkle was running against incumbent Cook County Board President Todd Stroger, she successfully used Stroger’s one-cent sales tax hike as a campaign issue, going as far as to make an ad with a Benjamin Franklin impersonator. “I used to teach my history students about Ben Franklin,” said Preckwinkle, a former high school teacher, in the spot. “A penny saved is a penny earned.”

After she was elected, Preckwinkle rolled back the sales tax to the current 9.25-percent rate. As president, she’s generally been credited with improving the efficiency of the county government and cutting costs, avoiding the allegations of patronage and incompetence that hounded Stroger.

However, to address pension obligations, Preckwinkle is now calling for a return to the higher county sales tax. In response, a Crain’s magazine cartoonist recently portrayed her as a mad scientist crying, “It’s alive!” as the 10.25-percent tax rises from the operating table like Frankenstein’s monster.

There’s a saying in politics, “Never let a crisis go to waste.” Accordingly, The Center for Neighborhood Technology and the Active Transportation Alliance are using this moment when the Cook County commissioners may vote for a tax hike to promote their Transit Future funding campaign. They’re asking the commissioners to simultaneously create a dedicated revenue stream for public transportation infrastructure in the county. CNT vice president of policy Jacky Grimshaw explained the reasoning behind this new push.

John Greenfield: Why is Preckwinkle talking about raising the sales tax? That seems like political Kryptonite, considering that Stroger lost the election to her over that issue.

Jacky Grimshaw: Well, she has spent about four-and-a-half years cleaning up county government, creating opportunities to be more efficient, eliminating positions that were not crucial to the operations of government and bringing the budget within the means of the county. At this point in time, it’s become crucial that there’s action taken to fund the pensions. As she said, it’s costing about $30 million a month the longer there is a delay in putting in new provisions for pension reform.

Greenfield: So Active Trans and CNT support this tax hike?

Grimshaw: Yes. The reason why we support the tax is because, when we talked to the president about backing Transit Future, she said she was supportive but had to take care of pensions before she could deal with any kind of transit expansion. So her taking action to deal with the pensions is the first step toward us getting the support we want for public transportation.

Read the rest of the interview on the Newcity website.

  • kastigar

    Funding transit is important but paying off the pension debt is also important, and keeping the taxes low is important as well.

    You have to have priorities. Riding bicycles doesn’t require transit funding, doesn’t require more taxes.

  • what_eva

    It’s unfortunate that people will just say “well, she just raised the tax back up”

    Stroger raised the tax so he could keep the patronage army going. Were he still around, we’d likely be looking at another 1% to pay for pensions in addition to his 1% for patronage.

  • ardecila

    Grimshaw and other advocates are all too quick to point to LA as an example for how the public can support a transit tax for expansion. What goes unsaid is that LA’s Measure R included substantial highway expansions as well as transit, it had a clearly-defined set of projects, and a hard 30-year timeframe for construction.

    In contrast, Transit Future is far too vague at this point. Nobody knows what size tax increase is needed, the list of projects is way too hazy, and even the projects that have been considered by planners don’t have good cost estimates. If a one-cent tax was passed tomorrow for transit, it would be a slush fund for any and every politician’s pet projects, not a disciplined set of strategic improvements to the transportation system.

  • ohsweetnothing

    Well, Transit Future at least has a set list of ideal projects. I agree that more defined projects would go a long way, but I’m also not opposed to letting the money come in and then start to tick off each project as funding is found.

  • and it doesn’t work for all trips in the region. It takes an two hours of cycling to get from say Pullman to West Town or from the loop to Elk Grove Village. Fast transit is required to keep far-flung parts of the city and region economically connected, and to make many trips possible that cannot be done by bicycle.

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