Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Transit deal leaves capital construction plan waiting again

This article gives you probably another reason why transit bailout legislation was almost at a crawl until this month when a bill was finally passed and then amended by the governor and then approved again...
Money for new roads, bridges and schools throughout Illinois might have disappeared in the tussle between lawmakers and the governor over funding for Chicago-area train and bus systems, dampening hopes for the first capital construction bill in years.

A coalition of Republicans and downstate Democrats had attempted to use support for mass-transit funding as leverage for a $13 billion statewide construction plan that would be funded by a major expansion in casino gambling.

And for a time, it appeared it would work.

But the coalition - and its leverage - crumbled last week when some of those Democrats voted for a tax increase to help fund mass transit systems in the Chicago area and head off a “doomsday” scenario of service cuts, fare increases and thousands of layoffs.

“We let this opportunity slip through our fingers,” said Sen. Dale Righter, R-Mattoon. “I'm hopeful there will be a capital plan but not very optimistic on that.”

The capital plan's rapid fall wasn't a surprise given its rocky history.

Lawmakers haven't approved a new construction plan since former Republican Gov. George Ryan was in office. Disagreements over how to pay off the billions of dollars that would have been borrowed for new and improved buildings and roads have repeatedly blocked any progress during Gov. Rod Blagojevich's two terms.

But supporters thought this time was different.

If downstaters from both parties could withhold their votes on a transit deal, they figured, leaders finally would have to agree on a capital plan or face a major backlash when the Chicago area was hit by major transit cutbacks and fare increases.

Ultimately, however, several downstate Democrats decided to break rank, saying there wasn't consensus among the leaders for a capital plan, so it didn't make sense to punish Chicago transit riders.

What's more, the deal included millions of dollars for downstate transit systems - money that would come from higher taxes paid only by Chicago-area residents and visitors. And, they said, it was impossible to concentrate on a capital deal as long as transit woes dominated legislators' attention.

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