March 01--Mass transit supporters proposed state legislation Wednesday that would increase the gas tax in the Chicago area to raise a projected $168 million over five years for the CTA, Metra and Pace.
The legislation seeks to index the state motor fuel tax to inflation, with annual adjustments, to ensure a dedicated transit funding source, officials said.
The state gas tax, 19 cents per gallon, was last increased in 1990.
The proposed legislation, if approved by the General Assembly, would generate $11.6 million in new transit funding in 2013 based on an estimated two-fifths-of-a-cent increase in the motor fuel tax in the six-county Chicago area only, supporters said.
The proposed legislation would also direct new incremental revenue to the state public transportation fund. It does not divert funding from the state roads program.
"A lot of us who ride transit are really more and more fed up with higher fares and worse service," Ron Burke, executive director of the Active Transportation Alliance, said at a news conference at State and Van Buren streets downtown. "Unfortunately, transit has been derailed by chronic underfunding."
The alliance helped introduce the bill.
Burke said the gas take hike would amount to about 0.4 of a cent a year, or an extra $3 to $4 for a family that travels about 20,000 miles a year.
The sponsor of the legislation, SB 3236, is state Sen. Martin Sandoval, D-Chicago, who heads the Senate Transportation Committee. Sandoval is expected to introduce the bill soon in Springfield, officials said.
The legislation is being introduced against a backdrop of state government spending cuts as well as a Republican-led move in Congress to pare dedicated federal funding for mass transit.
Neither leaders in the General Assembly nor Gov. Pat Quinn have taken a position on the state Senate transit funding bill, officials said. It will likely be a very tough sell, given the state of the economy and recent increases in gas prices.
It's also unclear how much money indexing the motor fuel tax to inflation would generate, because many people have cut back on driving because of high gas prices. Many people also drive more fuel-efficient vehicles, which reduces how much gas is purchased.
Despite the long odds facing the legislation, backers of the bill said there is an urgent need to provide faster, more frequent and more reliable bus and rail service in the Chicago area, ease traffic congestion and create jobs.
Members of Riders for Better Transit, an advocacy group created by the Active Transportation Alliance, distributed fliers at downtown train stations Wednesday to ask commuters to contact their state legislators to express support for better transit service.
Burke said Metra's record fare hike in February, which caused ticket prices to shoot up as much as 35 percent, could have been avoided or minimized if the legislation were in place.
But a Metra official disagreed.
"It's just me speaking, (but) I don't believe that necessarily would have unburdened that. But it might have had some effect, perhaps," said Sam Smith, Metra's government relations chief.
Metra plans more fare increases, tied to inflation, as soon as next year.
The CTA will also be hard-pressed to avoid fare hikes and possibly service cuts in 2013, officials said.
"We are falling way behind in terms of being competitive on transportation as it serves our economy," said Steve Schlickman, executive director of the Urban Transportation Center at the University of Illinois at Chicago. "We can't just rely on fare increases to solve our transit needs. Fares will never pay for the infrastructure."
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