Chicago big winner from feds

December 2, 2015

Chicago area, Union Station big winners in U.S. transportation deal

Greg Hinz on Politics in Crain’s Chicago Business

Metropolitan Chicago, which likes to consider itself the nation’s transportation center, appears to be a big winner in the new five-year surface-transportation funding bill agreed on yesterday by congressional negotiators, with Union Station alone potentially in line for up to $1 billion in improvements.Website Insert New Passenger Train Service copy

Congressional and local government sources say the area will benefit from increased, long-term funding for both transit and road projects, reauthorization of Amtrak, and a new pot of funds that help Chicago’s Create freight-rail decongestion program. And then there’s the Union Station work.

“This is a good bill,” said Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill, who sat on the conference committee that developed the bill, which now goes to the full House and Senate for final approval. “When you consider the mess we’ve been in for eight years now….”

Durbin was referring to the fact that budget fights left Congress unable to pass a long-term transportation bill since George W. Bush was in office. Instead, it has relied on short-term fixes that sometimes extended just a few months. The new bill should clear the way for spending about $300 billion nationally over the next five years, about 15 percent above the current level.

The fact that a long-term bill may soon be passed is itself a big gain, said another conferee, U.S. Rep. Dan Lipinski, D-Chicago. “The bill’s not perfect. But it’s much better than what we had.”

Highway aid and money allocated by a formula to transit operators such as the Chicago Transit Authority and Metra will rise together, with transit keeping its traditional 20 percent share despite efforts by some Republicans to divert funds to highway projects in the South and West. But there also are some particular tweaks of local interest.

The biggest is that Union Station owner Amtrak will be eligible to apply for a little-used federal low-interest loan pool known as Railroad Rehabilitation and Infrastructure Funding (RRIF), using development in the station and air rights above it as collateral. Amtrak is in the initial stages of trying to rebuild the dilapidated and crowded Near West Side facility.

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