Governor's blockade of regional transit funding and reforms threatens local, state bottom line - Metropolitan Planning Council

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Governor's blockade of regional transit funding and reforms threatens local, state bottom line

Working people across the region will be hurt – as will Illinois residents statewide who will feel the ripple effects of a hamstrung economy in metropolitan Chicago

(Chicago) … As Monday’s evening rush hour began and downtown commuters streamed into Union Station, a group of business, university and elected leaders convened by the Metropolitan Planning Council sent a public message – and several dozen phone calls – to Gov. Rod Blagojevich, reminding him that public transportation is vital to the livelihoods of Chicago-area workers, students and residents. The group also made a collective plea to the governor, asking him to support a fix that will provide adequate funding and reforms for Metra, Pace and the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) – or brace the entire state as metropolitan Chicago’s economy grinds to a halt.

“Transit is the lifeline of Chicago’s economy: nearly two-thirds of downtown workers commute by bus or rail every weekday,” said Mary K. Ludgin, managing director and director of investment research, Heitman, which employs 180 people at its downtown office. “Our transit agencies have reached the breaking point, and we’re about to find out what will happen to our economy if we continue to starve them of a stable, adequate revenue source.”

Ludgin added that the Loop’s office market has experienced healthy growth over the past 20 years, and its share of the regional office stock is among the highest in the U.S. At the same time, the Central Area’s residential markets have experienced remarkable growth. In both cases, public transportation access has played an important part: companies like Jones Lang LaSalle, which employs 1,077 workers downtown, stay in the Loop due in part to transit access for their workers.

“Viable public transportation can protect Chicago ’s business community. It can ensure that people in our city have access to jobs. It can ensure employers have the opportunity to recruit diverse talent. And most of all, it can ensure Chicago’s future as a vibrant, competitive center of business,” said Beth Hayden, senior vice president of human resources, Jones Lang LaSalle.

If CTA, Metra and Pace are forced to eliminate existing routes that connect workers to downtown Chicago and other employment centers, such as around O’Hare, the situation will spiral downward: f or example, up to 260,000 CTA riders will lose service, forcing some into their cars and onto already congested roads – and leaving those who are transit-dependent in an even tighter spot.

One solution is on the table: the House Mass Transit Committee passed a bipartisan bill that would provide funding and reforms for the region’s transit agencies. To date, Gov. Blagojevich has threatened a veto due to the measure’s sales tax increase, despite it being very modest and supported by the region’s elected officials.

“By standing in the way of a regional sales tax increase, the governor will do great harm to Chicago-area workers and businesses,” said MPC Vice President of External Relations Peter Skosey. “A small bump in the regional sales tax – one-quarter of one cent, which would add less than a penny to the cost of a $3.50 latte – would put Metra, Pace and CTA on more stable footing, prevent threatened service cuts and fare increases for the foreseeable future, and keep business moving in Chicagoland.”

If the state fails to provide funding for Metra, Pace and CTA, all three transit service providers have said they will need to cut routes and hike fares to make ends meet.

“I represent one of thousands of Chicagoland workers who will not have a way to get to work if Metra, Pace and CTA are forced to cut service and hike fares due to the state’s inaction,” said Sandra Pruett, head of AFSCME Local 1215, representing city library workers. “Many people, myself included, simply cannot drive downtown to work every day. Without the Kimball bus and the Blue Line, I don’t know what I’d do.”

In addition, as Ludgin pointed out, shrinking rather than expanding mass transit service – at a time when the growing region already struggles with the nation’s third-worse traffic congestion – will make Chicago a less attractive place for businesses to locate. This, in turn, will create dramatic ripple effects for the regional and statewide economy: Property and sales tax revenues will plummet if the Loop hemorrhages workers, who not only earn their paychecks in the city, but spend them here as well.

It’s not only workers who rely on transit: in addition to suburban day-trippers, tourists, and conventioneers, some 53,800 college students commute to the Loop – Illinois’ largest “college town” – every day; only 19 percent drive, according to John Wozniak, president of Harold Washington College. Wozniak also noted that many students spend their entire day in Chicago. Some study in between classes at local cafes, others shop, and some 40 percent work part-time jobs in the Loop.

“If the state fails to provide funding for Metra, Pace and the CTA, it’s not just the workforce that we’ll need to worry about. Students play a major role in Chicago’s economy – and provided they can get to class to earn their degrees, they will be leading Illinois’ future economy,” said Wozniak, who added that many full-time students use the CTA’s U-PASS, representing a new generation of mass transit users doing their part to combat global warming.

To help turn the tide in Springfield, attendees at the news conference and bystanders were encouraged to use cell phones provided by MPC to call the governor’s office at 312-814-2121, asking him to support funding and reforms for the entire region’s transit system.

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