Crain’s Chicago Business – Op-Ed: Why funding mass transit is important to our economic growth

Amid the election-year din, one issue remains paramount to most Illinoisans: the slow pace of economic recovery and job growth.

Spurring economic growth and creating jobs are defining challenges for our region and our state. Illinois’ economy has been growing by around 2 percent for the past few years, an anemic rate that is dwarfed by the growth of our Great Lakes neighbors. Our state’s unemployment rate is still well over 9 percent, more than a full point higher than the national average of 8.3 percent and much, much too high.

As the immediate past chairman of the DuPage County Board, a board member of Choose DuPage and a member of Gov. Pat Quinn’s advisory council on the Elgin-O’Hare West Bypass, I believe job creation, congestion relief and expanding mass transit are interdependent for a robust economy.

DuPage County residents take millions of rides on public transportation every year. They depend on Metra and Pace to get them to and from work or to bring their employees to and from their businesses. In DuPage alone, there are three Metra lines and 26 stations; there are 56 Pace bus routes.

As the economy struggles to recover, and Illinois gas prices hover above $4 a gallon, public transportation matters now more than ever. Look at national trends. Last week, the American Public Transportation Association released a report showing that Americans took 235 million more public transit rides in 2011 than in 2010. In all, Americans took 10.4 billion rides on public transportation in 2011, according to APTA.

For this reason, it is critical for DuPage residents and businesses to closely watch the current transportation debate in Washington. Last month, Reps. Judy Biggert, Robert Dold and Daniel Lipinski wisely called for changes to a disastrous $260 billion federal transportation bill that would have gutted funding for mass transit by cutting off money from motor fuels tax receipts. Mass transit has always depended on the gas tax to help pay for its capital needs — for example, rebuilding bridges, tracks and equipment.

What would ending this funding mean for the men and women of DuPage County and northeastern Illinois? Cutting off those funds would translate into more delays, increased fares, more slow zones, decreased service and a much more difficult time getting to work. If we lack the funds to keep up the system, the system will not work for us.

I am heartened by the U.S. Senate’s recent bipartisan vote to pass S. 1813, which keeps mass transit funds flowing from the Highway Trust Fund. In addition, the bill restores parity between the pretax benefit for qualified parking and for public transportation at $240 a month. That’s a benefit every commuter can appreciate.

This issue cuts across party lines. Let’s hope our legislators in Washington will agree on a sensible funding formula to keep mass transit functioning properly. Funding highways is important — and funding mass transit is vital to our economic future.

Robert J. Schillerstrom is a former chairman of the DuPage County Board.