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Mass transit officials explain maintenance, expansion to Cook County Board

Friday, November 02, 2012

by Gregory Tejeda

CHICAGO | The year 2013 will be one heavily focused on maintenance and repairs for the Chicago-area’s mass transit systems, according to officials who presented their proposed budgets Thursday to the Cook County Board.

Officials from the Regional Transportation Authority, the state agency that oversees Chicago-area mass transit programs, along with the Metra commuter railroad and Pace suburban bus systems, all explained to the county officials about the need for maintenance to keep their existing services running. County officials appoint some of the mass transit agency members and provide some of their funding

John Gates Jr., chairman of the RTA, said the agency was hoping to get approval next year for a bond issue to raise $2.5 billion that would be distributed to the various transit entities.

“It would allow us to address some of our maintenance needs,” he said, while adding there are about $30 billion in maintenance projects that will need to be done at some point during the upcoming decade.

Vernon Squires, a Pace board member, said suburban bus lines plan to spend about $111 million on capital projects during 2013, including the purchase of new buses that run on alternative fuel sources.

While Metra Director Arlene Mulder said some $146 million will be spent on infrastructure improvements for the commuter trains that transport people from suburban areas into downtown Chicago.

She said some $7.4 billion will be needed by Metra to pay for all the infrastructure improvements needed during the next decade.

Despite the emphasis on maintenance and repairs, there are some expansions of service planned. Pace Executive Director Rocky Donahue cited several increases in bus lines to take place this coming year, including one that would collect passengers in south suburban Country Club Hills and transport them up the Tri-State Tollway (Interstate 294) to Arlington Heights where they could connect to other Pace bus lines.

“That would give south suburban people access to jobs in the northwest suburbs,” Donahue said.

County Commissioner Deborah Sims, whose Far South Side district stretches into suburbs such as Riverdale and Harvey, said she was pleased to see no funding cuts for programs that provide transportation to people with disabilities.

One project not included in any transit budget is funding that could help develop the proposed Southeast Metra Commuter Rail line that would run from the LaSalle Street Station south to the Balmoral Race Track near Crete.

Metra board member Don DeGraff, who also is village president of South Holland, said the fact that transit officials are focusing now on maintenance projects will help the developing Southeast line in future years.

“The federal and state governments that will be integral in raising money (for the Southeast line) don’t have any funding available now,” DeGraff said. “By paying for maintenance now, it will mean we can focus our money in the future toward raising the match we will need to do if we’re to get federal grants.”

Aside from hearing presentations about mass transit budgets, the Cook County Board also gave its approval to a Class 8 tax break requested for 30 W. Sauk Trail in South Chicago Heights, where PT LLC and Bapa LLC wish to develop a gasoline station and convenience store.

The tax break will reduce by more than half the amount of property taxes that a gas station would have to pay during the next 12 years. Officials have said their station would create 30 construction jobs and 11 full- and part-time jobs once the station is open.

The County Board also gave approval to using $4.5 million in motor fuel tax funds received from state government to pay for patching 138th Street from Ashland to Cottage Grove avenues. That 3.2-mile stretch of road passes through Chicago, Dolton and Riverdale.

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