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Chicagoland Thu Apr 09 2009

Sandoval Timing Right on Transit Funding Proposal

It's become almost cliché that mass transit was "saved" last year through a sales-tax funded revenue scheme, amended by Gov. Blagojevich to include, among other things, free rides for seniors. Something, anything, needed to be done to keep the trains and buses running, and my state Rep. Julie Hamos (D-Evanston) rightly got credit for brokering a deal between Springfield factions who didn't often play well with others. However, I suspect that most of those lauding the fix don't actually ride mass transit very often.

Given typical political schedules, I doubt many opinion leaders have spent as much time as you and I have standing on windy, freezing, sometimes-scary platforms, held hostage in tunnels or "slow zones," or stranded in the Twilight Zone of a bus stop for 40 minutes on a route that's supposed to provide service every 15. I wonder how many legislators have picked up a copy of Metra's February newsletter, On the Bi-Level, which spells out how their lack of capital funding for the last 5 years now imperils the very rails on which we ride.

State senator Martin Sandoval, acknowledging what has become clear, that last year's so-called save of mass transit was only a band-aid that avoided yet one more "doomsday" scenario, and after first criticizing the recent "mini-capital" bill as allotting insufficient monies for transit, has called for a three-part solution to address transit funding on a permanent, not stopgap, basis:

1. Increase by 8 cents a gallon the state's 19 cent per gallon motor fuel tax. In addition, increase the fees for driver's licenses and vehicle registrations;

2. Rename the state's "Road Fund" the "Transportation Fund." so that motor-fuel tax revenues would not only fund roads, but other forms of transportation; and

3. Change the traditional ratio of state funds, from 2:1 in favor of roads to mass transit, to 1:1.

In this economy, any call for a tax increase is politically perilous. When long-serving moderate Republican congressman Chris Shays proposed such a thing, he was flayed - by Democrats. He was defeated in the next election.

Yet Sandoval's timing is spot-on. Now of all times is the time for a modest gas tax to permanently fund mass transit.

For years, responsible studies have recommended an increase in motor-fuels tax. These have included a congressional commission that noted, "The tax of 18.4 cents per gallon hasn't been raised since 1983, despite an increasing number of cars and drivers and the resulting huge increase in congestion."

For decades, the opposition to gas tax hikes has centered around the argument that even a small hike would so curtail driving that it would put a damper on the economy. Much of this argumentation has been funded by conservative think tanks and, in turn, those with a vested interest in continued gasoline consumption, namely the petroleum industry and, to a lesser extent, auto manufacturers, who bristle reflexively at any restrictions, more as a point of macho principle than any policy rationale, it sometimes seems.

Other opposition has come from portions of the left who fear a gas tax hike falls disproportionately hard on those for whom the cost of gas is both a necessity and a significant part of their income. However, a new growing realization is that the costs of doing nothing about congestion, pollution, and global warming will fall even harder on those least positioned to withstand the hardships.

Perhaps most persuasive, in 2008 we saw gas prices soar from a late 2007 level of under $2 a gallon to a mid-summer high approaching $5 in some areas. The predictions that Americans could not handle a 25-cent increase in gas prices proved absolutely hollow: we continued to tank up when gas went to $2.50, $3.00, $3.50, and $4.00. The pure pain threshold appeared to be reached at about $4.50.

Lately, a gallon of regular is back down under $2.50 even in Chicago, which has some of the highest cumulative gas prices in the country. Since we now know a quarter makes no difference in this price range, this is the window of opportunity to fund transportation at sufficient and forward-thinking levels.

This should no longer be regarded as revolutionary. Recently, in Massachusetts, when the government proposed a 19-cent a gallon gas tax, business leaders surprised the media by saying it wasn't enough, and instead, endorsing a 25 cent gas tax hike. Increases in the gas tax are also supported by engineers, and even by popular car-culture icons such as Ray of "Car Talk." Even archconservative Charles Krauthammer has proposed a $1 gas tax, coupled with an equivalent reduction in payroll tax.

In Evanston, the first city in the U.S. to produce a citizen-initiated Climate Change Action Plan, one proposal is for an "eco-pass" that would provide unlimited mass transit for all rides originating in Evanston, for any resident.

The subcommittee that worked on the idea estimated that funding for this could be accomplished by a modest gas tax; however, to avoid residents flocking to gas stations in Skokie or Wilmette to pay a nickel less, there needs to be some uniformity. Imposing a statewide tax, and then disbursing funds to cities such as Evanston on a grant-type basis, might prove a workable way of encouraging large numbers of drivers to use mass transit. If a pilot program in towns such as Evanston worked, it might be applied to larger areas, such as PACE regions.

We could quarrel about the amount of the tax; arguments that some aspects of transit agencies are wasteful or worse have some merit. But that goes to details, not basic concept.

I'm no car-hater. The personal freedom of the automobile has enabled a lot of efficiencies and creativity. But I am also a regular mass transit user. Roads are subsidized by government, which means they are subsidized by CTA riders who don't drive very much, and by those who don't even own a car.

Sandoval's fundamental idea, that non-car transit ought to be subsidized as much as we subsidize the automobile culture, is unquestionably fair. If the funding is enough to get the trains and buses to actually run on time, it is likely to work.

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rideforfree / April 10, 2009 12:21 PM

The problem is that you have this constant tension between people who have (a) comparatively good access to public transit (city and inner suburb residents); (b) some access to transit used very specifically (outer suburbs and exurb residents who use trains to get to and from work in the city or to special events); and (c) people with no real concept of public transit (people in very small towns and rural areas).

The people who live in (b) and (c) not completely wrongly see taxing gas and reducing investment in roads as essentially making their life more difficult to make life easier for the (a) people.

So any solution needs to come with a proposal to integrate transit across those regions. Suburban and rural voters need to see something that will relieve congestion and decrease travel times before we'll ever get a fair funding scheme for urban transit.

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