Why Trump’s Infrastructure Plan Would Be Bad News for Chicago

The 95th Street Red Line terminal. Trump plans to eliminate the New Starts program, which the CTA is counting on to fund the Red Line extension to 130th Street, Photo: Jeff Zoline
The 95th Street Red Line terminal. Trump plans to eliminate the New Starts program, which the CTA is counting on to fund the Red Line extension to 130th Street, Photo: Jeff Zoline

Yesterday Donald Trump finally released the blueprint for his much-hyped infrastructure plan. He has promoted the bill for the last year as a $1 trillion program, but it would actually only contain $200 billion in federal funding for infrastructure over the next decade. That money would come from cuts to other programs including grants for transit and Amtrak, which bodes ill for the future of Chicago rail transportation. The current plan calls for $1.5 trillion in infrastructure spending, largely road building, over the next ten years, but most of the money would have to come from local and state governments, as well as private investments.

Trump also released his 2019 budget proposal yesterday. As Streetsblog USA’s Angie Schmitt noted, the budget calls for slashing $3.7 billion from the Federal Transit Administration’s New Starts competitive grant program, a key funding source for mass transit. New Starts has previously funded overhauls of the CTA Brown and Pink Lines, and has been used to add stations and tracks for Metra’s North Central, Southwest, and Union Pacific-West lines.

Last month the CTA announced its intention to apply for more than $1 billion in New Starts funding to help pay for the $2.3 billion south Red Line extension project. The grant program would have also been a likely revenue stream for the proposed Ashland bus rapid transit corridor, although that project is currently back-burnered due to community opposition.

A White House official also recently indicated that the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery grant program would be cut. The CTA has previously used TIGER money for the Green Line’s Garfield Park Conservatory station and various Blue Line work, and it’s currently bankrolling overhauls of the Garfield Green Line stop and the Red Line’s 95th Street terminal.

The Chicago Department of Transportation is also using this funding source for its portion of the CREATE program, meant to unsnarl traffic jams on area freight rail corridors. CDOT also won TIGER grants for the elegant, serpentine bicycle-pedestrian bridge that opened in 2016 at 35th Street and the lakefront, as well as the under-construction bike-ped bridge at 41st.

The Trump administration claims that the $200 billion in federal funding (with an estimated $168 billion coming from cuts to federal transit, Amtrak, water, and highway funding) would be used incentivize state and local governments to spend tax dollars on fixing infrastructure like roads, highways, ports, and airports.

As it stands, federal transportation grants generally involve the feds paying 80 percent of a project cost, with local or state governments chipping in 20 percent. Such money has been crucial for local transit improvements, as well as pedestrian and bike initiatives.

But under the new proposal, that ratio would be flipped, so Chicago and/or the state of Illinois would have to come up with 80 percent of the cost. That means that more money would have to be raised locally or via statewide strategies.

Hikes in taxes and tolls would be likely under this scenario, and this pressure might finally persuade state legislators to raise Illinois’ gas tax, which has been stuck at 19 cents a gallon since 1991. A vehicle-miles-traveled tax might be another way to raise money as gas tax revenue drops off due to the increasing popularity of hybrid and electric cars, Metropolitan Planning Council director Audrey Wennink recently told me.

The infrastructure bill, somewhat randomly, would require value capture financing as condition for cities to receive federal funds. This strategy is already in place for the 2.1 billion first phase of the Red and Purple Modernization project, which will rehab stations and track infrastructure between Belmont Avenue and Howard Street. A special tax-increment financing district designated around the project area, which will capture value from property tax revenue increases associated with the improved transit access, is projected to raise $622 million. That allowed Chicago to leverage a $1.1 billion federal grant, awarded shortly before Barack Obama left office a year ago.

But that approach probably wouldn’t work for the south Red Line extension. The Metropolitan Planning Council has estimated that, at best, an RLE transit TIF would raise only $200 million over the next 35 years.

Under Trump’s plan, the White House would also have more direct control over how transportation funds are spent via a new discretionary grant program. That’s bad news for Chicago, because not only has the administration been consistently hostile to funding public transportation, our city frequently served as a whipping boy for Trump during the presidential campaign, so it’s unlikely he’ll do us any funding favors.

In addition, one quarter of the $200 million in federal infrastructure money would be earmarked for rural areas, whose residents form a large part of Trump’s political base. However, a full 86 percent of Americans live in metropolitan areas, so cities and suburbs would not receive their fair share of funding.

Not surprisingly, several Illinois and Chicago leaders, such as U.S. Senator Dick Durbin, have blasted the bill. “At his State of the Union address, President Trump promised a $1.5 trillion infrastructure program,” Durbin said in a statement. “Today he released a plan that includes deep cuts to existing infrastructure programs, and shifts the burden of funding onto already cash-strapped cities and states. It will lead to significant increases in tolls and taxes for working Americans.”

  • FlamingoFresh

    It’s very asinine to cut transit funding across the country. The US is a diverse country economically, socially, and culturally depending on location. Large cities such as Chicago, need more investment in transit and sustainable modes of transport over personal vehicles. Smaller cities that are more spread out will probably have different transportation priority needs than large cities. It’s not black and white and it’s frustrating that the government’s approach to this is. Chicago’s transportation priorities should be transit and biking as well as maintaining existing roadways and infrastructure. Adding more lanes on roadways for personal vehicles is not sustainable and will just lead to the same current problem we’re experiencing now, too much congestion.

  • Jacob Wilson

    It’s worth mentioning Illinois (because of Chicago) is one of the states that contribute much more to the federal government than we get back. This isn’t just funding we’re not getting it’s money being taken out of our pockets.

    We’re working and paying taxes so exurban commuters in Houston can add more lanes to their highways while we cut service and raise fares on our public system.

  • Roland Solinski

    Since you mention Houston, it’s worth noting that they, too, have turned to toll roads (just as we have) in order to keep expanding suburban roads. Houston and other sunbelt areas are not somehow getting a gravy train when it comes to Federal transportation spending. (Focusing on the overall levels of money over multi-year periods – obviously funding for single projects is often doled out as pork-barrel).

    Also, the fact that Illinois sends more than it gets is largely because Illinois residents’ per-capita income is higher than most other states. Most Federal spending is on things like Medicare and Social Security, which is apportioned based on population. Mississippi’s poor taxpayers will obviously receive more government benefits, relative to their income, than Illinois’ wealthier taxpayers.

  • barracho

    If this is the price to pay for getting rid of the “belmont flyover” i am SO in favor of losing the extension. Besides, that’s just a racist move to get more south-siders to come north to work for next-to-nothing with a 2.5 hour commute.

  • There are different types of “value capture” funding mechanisms. Some help create affordable housing and transit-oriented development (jobs). Others do the opposite.

    If you want to understand the difference, see “Financing Infrastructure with Value Capture: The Good, The Bad & The Ugly” at https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/financing-infrastructure-value-capture-good-bad-ugly-rick-rybeck/?published=t

  • johnaustingreenfield

    Current CTA travel time from Altgeld Gardens to the Evanston border is 1:49. About 30 minutes of that is the bus ride to the 95th Street Red Line stop — the RLE would significantly cut the travel time for that leg of the trip, as well as eliminating the transfer time.

  • barracho

    please explain exactly WHY someone would want to do that and WHAT exactly does that have to do with the price of tea in China? There is a Metra station blocks away-just add buses that go there from altgeld if there are actually people going from there to evanston. my mother lived in the south suburbs for over 40 years, I’m intimately familiar with them and also the whole southeast side from being raised there.

  • barracho

    very good article-maybe it’s ALTGELD that should be moved from a superfund site in the middle of NOWHERE to one of the MANY vacant sites closer to “civilization”, meaning shopping, services and transit.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    My point was that commuting from the Far South Side to much of the North Side via the extended Red Line wouldn’t take anywhere near 2.5 hours.

    We’ve discussed the possibility of converting the Metra Electric District line to rapid transit as a cheaper, quicker alternative to the Red Line extension many times on this site. Note that the closest Metra station to Altgeld Gardens is in the suburb over Riverdale, which is actually a half-hour walk from most of AG.

    One advantage of the Red Line extension over the MED conversion would be the ability to take a one-seat ride from the Far South Side to the North Side, instead of having to transfer from Millennium Station to another train or bus.

    For example, you’re saying that an Altgeld Gardens resident who works in Lakeview should catch a bus to an MED station, take the train downtown, exit Millennium station and walk a few blocks to the Red Line at State and Randolph, and wait on the platform for another train. So it’s pretty obvious why an Altgeld resident would push for the Red Line Extension scenario.

  • barracho

    Exactly WHO needs/wants to go to Lakeview from Riverdale, let alone Altgeld? To get from Edgewater to Northbrook I had to take the Red Line to Howard, transfer to the Purple Line, get off at Davis and transfer to a bus. It took about an hour if the stars aligned PERFECTLY. So I would go get breakfast in Evanston, eat half and give the rest to my pregnant boss. Having the ABILITY to do something and doing it are two different things. As I said, just run a bus from Altgeld to Riverdale and/or Ivanhoe, south-siders took a bus to the train in the olden days and north-siders do it now.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    “Exactly WHO needs/wants to go to Lakeview from Riverdale, let alone Altgeld?” The Red Line extension would make it much easier for residents who live near the proposed stations to get to jobs, schools, retail, medical offices, etc. near Red Line stations anywhere else in the city. But, hey, if your original post was arguing that we should raise the minimum wage to $15, I agree with you.

  • ardecila

    I’m on board with Trump’s proposal to expand tolling. States will have to find creative sources of revenue to maintain their road systems.

    Ideally this would spur a broader conversation about tolling in Chicago. It’s dumb that the expressways running through the heart of the city are free, while the bypass routes (I-294 and I-355) are tolled heavily. Trucks especially get hit hard on those bypasses, $15-$20 each way. Thus, many truck drivers do the logical thing and… drive through the city instead, contributing to severe congestion and air pollution in Chicago’s densest and poorest areas.

    Commuters also choose to take these roads for convenience or just personal comfort, despite the heavy congestion and abundant transit options. Meanwhile, the commuters on the bypass routes don’t really have transit alternatives. So, yes. Please, please toll the Kennedy, Dan Ryan, Eisenhower and Stevenson.

  • barracho

    really…do you see the LUNACY of what you are saying? instead of spending HUNDREDS OF MILLIONS on bloated construction contracts for a rinky dink train to the middle of nowhere why not get the money to get JOBS, RETAIL, DOCTORS—-all along the SSIDE? i know, because that makes too much SENSE and there’s no pork involved—wth cares about what’s along the redline but FATCATS?


Indy's Red Line BRT was one of the transit projects spared from cuts in Congress's budget. Image: IndyGo

House and Senate Decline Trump’s Request to Gut Transit Funding, For Now

Yesterday, Congress came out with a funding package that keeps the government operating until the end of September. Officially, it's known as the omnibus appropriations package for fiscal year 2017. Unofficially, it's a Republican Congress ignoring the wishes of President Donald J. Trump, and for transit projects around the country, it's what amounts to good news these days.