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Transit Investment Pays for Itself

With the public’s attention shifting from the war in Iraq to the national economy, the debate on the reauthorization of the federal transportation bill, TEA-21, could not have come at a better time.

As the mayor of Chicago, I know something about transportation and its importance to the economic recovery we all hope for. Chicago has been the center of the nation’s transportation network for well over 100 years.

Illinois has the third most interstate lane miles in the country. The Chicago region’s public transportation system provides more than

570 million rides a year, bringing commuters to the jobs that fuel the nation’s economy. Fifty-two-thousand truckloads of freight are shipped from Chicago each day to destinations across the country.

The people of Chicago — and of cities across the nation — understand that federal funding in our nation’s transportation infrastructure is an investment that will pay for itself many times over, creating new jobs and generating new revenue.

Local governments own about 75 percent of the nearly 4 million-mile highway and road network and more than half of the nearly 600,000 bridges in this country. If they’re allowed to fall into disrepair for lack of federal assistance, it won’t just be local economies that suffer; the ripples will be felt throughout the nation.

To get the maximum benefit out of the TEA-21 reauthorization, I believe Congress should focus on several priorities.

First, rather than look for new things to build, we should concentrate on putting what we already have in good working order. The core of the nation’s vital transportation system must be preserved to provide a solid foundation for moving goods and people around the nation.

Bridges are a good example of what I’m talking about. Chicago has 210 bridges, most of which are at least 100 years old, and they reflect the deteriorated state of bridges across the nation. According to the Federal Highway Administration’s 2002 Conditions and Performance Report, 28.5 percent of the nation’s bridges were deficient in 2000.

Yet TEA-21 provided only $100 million annually for the Discretionary Bridge Program. The reauthorization should contain substantially more.

Next, we should make sure we get the most out of every transportation dollar. By using the latest technologies coupled with sound engineering and planning principles, we can design and build a better transportation network for less money.

The reauthorization should continue to distribute highway and transit funding on the basis of need, without exceeding the 20 percent local matching requirement. City and state governments are willing to pay their share, but we can’t afford to pay more at a time of severe budget constraints.

It should maintain the firewalls that guarantee that funds collected for transportation will be used for transportation.

It should fund the Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Program at a level that will maintain or increase current levels of funding for existing recipients. This vital program funds many of Chicago’s pedestrian, bicycle and transit projects as well as Illinois’ highly effective vehicle inspection and maintenance program.

It should maintain — and, preferably, increase — federal funding of mass transit, a critical and extremely cost-effective component of an effective surface transportation network, especially in large, densely populated metropolitan areas like Chicago.

The Chicago Transit Authority runs rapid transit lines down the median strips of three expressways, where they function like a super-sized high occupancy vehicle lane. During a typical morning commute, these trains carry virtually the same number of people as the vehicles on the 10-lane expressways, sharing the same right-of-way. Furthermore, since trains each carry up to 1,000 people and run at 3-minute intervals, it is much cheaper to expand train service than to try to add expressway lanes.

If Chicago shut down its mass-transit system, we’d have to build more than 200 lane-miles of new expressways to handle the increased auto traffic, and more than 200 lane-miles of new arterial roads.

Some people wrongly think of public transportation as an inner-city service. In fact, Chicago’s regional public transportation system provides more than 400,000 rides per day to residents of more than 200 suburbs.

The benefits of transit far outweigh the costs. Some of the oldest rapid-transit lines in the Chicago region lasted nearly a century before they had to be rebuilt. Show me a highway that can last that long. And mass transit contributes to the region’s economic vitality by attracting businesses and residents, protecting the environment, and reducing traffic congestion as well as reliance on foreign oil.

Like every other transit-intensive metropolitan area, the Chicago area has relied on federal investment to rebuild and repair its system. But the CTA still faces $1.9 billion in unmet capital needs. Other cities’ transit systems are feeling the same crunch. If we can’t keep our transit systems in good repair, our metropolitan economies will suffer.

And when we talk of metropolitan economies, we actually mean the national economy. According to a study by the U.S. Conference of Mayors and the National Association of Counties, metropolitan areas account for 85 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product.

Finally, I hope Congress will give serious consideration to Rep. Bill Lipinski’s (D-Ill.) proposal to create a national rail infrastructure program. Rail freight is a critical component of our nation’s transportation network, but one that is often overlooked. Congressman Lipinski’s proposal would improve safety at our nation’s highway grade crossings and ease congestion on our railways and our roadways. Just as mass transit reduces the number of automobiles on our highways, rail freight reduces the number of trucks.

I don’t see how the nation can have a full economic recovery unless Congress pays attention to the surface transportation infrastructure that’s needed to move goods and people from place to place. Shifting this responsibility to state and local governments won’t work. They don’t have the money.

Federal surface transportation programs have succeeded on a national basis because of their ability to address national mobility needs. Reauthorization of these programs — for both highways and transit — is necessary to ensure effective transportation networks that provide economic opportunities and support livable communities throughout the nation.

Richard M. Daley (D) is the mayor of Chicago.

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