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How D.C. gridlock might jam up traffic in Chicago

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Joseph G. Costello's focus usually extends no farther than the end of the Regional Transportation Authority's bus and train lines.

But now the RTA executive director is mostly worried about what is happening much farther away - in Washington, where Congress is battling over transportation funding that expires on Saturday.

Funding for public transportation has become a political football in the nation's capital. And Costello says the political gridlock in Washington could quickly turn into a transportation gridlock here in Chicago.

Joseph G. Costello (Rich Hein~Sun-Times)

The Senate has passed a bill called MAP-21 that would extend funding for two years. But the House hasn't passed anything and is talking about a continuing resolution that would last for maybe for 90 days. On Monday House Republican leaders canceled a vote on even that option.

"We are very much in support of the Senate bill," Costello says. "We really see the House continuing resolution idea as very problematic."

That's because such a short extension would make it impossible to start new projects. No one would want to lend money for a project if the funding for it could disappear before work could even begin.

"The House [bill] would leave us smack in the middle of the construction season," Costello says. "We would be pulling projects off if we didn't have any confidence that we would be able to finish them."

Among the projects that would go offline are rehabbing 24 Red Line stations, creating express Pace bus lines on expressway shoulders and replacing Metra switching equipment on the Milwaukee Road line that now is delaying trains.

The RTA provides 2.2 million rides a day, and the region's roads couldn't handle the extra traffic if public transportation didn't exist, Costello says

"You think you've got gridlock now?" asks Costello, who was the RTA's chief financial officer for years until he was named executive director a year ago.

If Metra didn't exist, for example, "You would have to build another 27 expressway lanes to take care of the people," he says.

If Congress turns off the spigot, "one of the first things to go would be track work," Costello says. "You just run your trains slower. If you are not replacing buses, they are going to break down more. The service starts to degrade day by day. At some point you get service that is so crummy no one wants to ride it.

Costello cites these numbers: The federal motor fuel tax is 18.4 cents a gallon. Twenty percent of the revenue it generates goes to public transportation. Nationwide, that translates to $100 million a day. For the RTA, it is $1.2 million a day, enough to buy two new buses. Three days of that funding is enough to replace a Metra bridge. The average motorist pays $120 to $140 a year in taxes. To build the RTA's transportation infrastructure from scratch today would cost $42 billion. It's the third biggest transit system in the nation.

Meanwhile, the Saturday deadline looms.

"How we can be so close to March 31?" Costello asks.

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1 Comment

I don't know how to accomplish it, but it would be a good thing right now to replace all Republicans at every level of government until a less irrational new GOP can emerge from the rubble.

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