Local leaders and advocates agree: Biden's $2T infrastructure package would be great for Chicago transportation | On Transportation | Chicago Reader

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Local leaders and advocates agree: Biden's $2T infrastructure package would be great for Chicago transportation

The plan would dramatically beef up funding for transit, vehicle electrification, and Amtrak.

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The under-construction Belmont Flyover, officially called the Red-Purple Bypass, is part of the CTA’s $2.1 billion Red & Purple Modernization project, partially bankrolled with $1.1 million in federal funding under the Obama-Biden administration. - JOHN GREENFIELD
  • John Greenfield
  • The under-construction Belmont Flyover, officially called the Red-Purple Bypass, is part of the CTA’s $2.1 billion Red & Purple Modernization project, partially bankrolled with $1.1 million in federal funding under the Obama-Biden administration.

President Joe Biden's American Jobs Plan, an eight-year, $2 trillion infrastructure spending proposal announced on March 31, is refreshingly city-friendly. About a third of that cash would be earmarked for transportation, including generous slices of the pie for public transportation, vehicle electrification, and Amtrak, which will be especially helpful for big cities. Chicago is no exception.

The Biden administration frames this ambitious spending plan as something of a moonshot. "Public domestic investment as a share of the economy has fallen by more than 40 percent since the 1960s," notes the fact sheet for the proposal. "The American Jobs Plan will invest in America in a way we have not invested since we built the interstate highways and won the Space Race."

Needless to say, Republicans, whose base is largely made up of white folks who live in car-centric exurbs and rural areas, are balking at this proposal, which would greatly benefit urban dwellers, especially people of color, who are more likely to rely on transit for essential transportation.

The GOP is particularly upset that the plan would be bankrolled by fairly taxing big business. The federal corporate tax, which was slashed under Donald Trump, would be raised again from the current 21 percent to 28 percent, and the standard tax on profits made abroad would be hiked from 13 percent to 21 percent. "It’s called infrastructure," sniffed Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. "But inside the Trojan horse it’s going to be more borrowed money and massive tax increases on all the productive parts of our economy."

But transit analyst and former Chicagoan Yonah Freemark detailed the massive upsides of Biden's plan for sustainable transportation and addressing climate change in a recent The Hill op-ed. Of the $621 billion reserved for transportation, $85 billion will go to transit agencies, and $80 billion will be earmarked for intercity rail.

That's more than twice the current federal funding for public transportation and quadruple the money for rail. Moreover, as it stands, highways get over three times as much funding as transit and rail, but only $115 billion would be spent on roads under the new plan, so sustainable modes would get 43 percent more cash than car-centric ones.

Another $174 billion would be set aside for vehicle electrification, which is especially important for reducing emissions and related health impacts in dense population centers like ours. The money would help citizens transition to electric cars, and fund 500,000 charging stations, and 50,000 public transportation buses.

Needless to say, people who care about efficient, sustainable, and equitable transportation in Chicagoland are bullish on Biden's plan, although some note that the devil may be in the details.

In a statement, Chicago Department of Transportation chief Gia Biagi praised the additional funding for "road and rail to bridges and bikeways to signals and sidewalks, and everything in-between." She added that Biden’s proposed "Safe Streets for All" program would provide more cash for our city's Vision Zero program to eliminate serious and fatal traffic crashes.

Democratic Congressional rep Marie Newman, who represents Illinois's third district, including parts of the south side and southwest 'burbs, also spoke glowingly of the proposal, which she said takes infrastructure funding off "the back burner." Newman added that she looks forward to working with the administration and her colleagues to fine-tune the plan. "That means investing in green, clean infrastructure projects and energy-efficient transportation that will create new, sustainable union jobs and reduce our dependence on unsustainable means of production."

"The unprecedented scale of investment in transit proposed . . . has the potential to transform transit in Chicago," said Active Transportation Alliance advocacy director Jim Merrell. He promised that the advocacy group will rally its members to urge local U.S. reps to fight for the passage of the bill.

Metropolitan Planning Council transportation director Audrey Wennink lauded Biden's plan for a new program to reconnect neighborhoods cut off by highways, with a focus on racial equity. That was largely inspired by New Orleans architectural designer Amy Stelly's campaign to tear down the Claiborne Expressway, which walls off the heavily African American Tremé community.

However, Wennink argued that the infrastructure plan needs to be more specific about its "fix it first" provision for roads "to ensure funds are focused on maintaining the roads and bridges we have and do not create additional ongoing maintenance liabilities or additional harm to communities" by enabling street widening or highway expansion.

P.S. Sriraj, director of UIC's Urban Transportation Center, noted that the cash infusion for transit will be helpful for addressing Chicagoland's transit infrastructure maintenance backlog. He added that the electrification money will help the CTA meet its goal of having a smog-free bus fleet by 2040, if not sooner.

"A lingering question that will haunt the entire [infrastructure bill] process is whether or not the traditional downtown-oriented transit market will rebound over the next few years as a result of work-from-home lifestyles," argued Joe Schwieterman, director of DePaul's Chaddick Institute for Metropolitan Development. "This will bring pressure to focus on transit upgrades that aren't primarily reliant on bringing workers to downtown jobs."

But Schwieterman noted that Chicago "is positioned really well" to benefit from the infrastructure plan, since we have "several big-ticket transportation projects on the docket," such as the CTA's proposed $2.3 billion extension of the Red Line from 95th to 130th streets.

Proposed improvements to the Amtrak network - COURTESY AMTRAK
  • Courtesy Amtrak
  • Proposed improvements to the Amtrak network

Personally, I'm jazzed about the possibility of Amtrak using all that additional dough to expand and improve its network, so that American passenger rail service begins to approach that of more civilized nations. The railroad responded to Biden's plan by publishing a wish list that includes 30 new routes, plus faster or more service on 20 existing routes, including most of the ones that originate at Chicago's Union Station.

I'm fresh back from an Amtrak + bike excursion to the old Mormon capital of Nauvoo on a Mississippi River bluff in western Illinois, where LDS prophet Joseph Smith lived before he was shot dead by an angry mob. So, glancing at the railroad's dream map, the idea of being able to easily hop a train from Chicago to Duluth, Iowa City, or Louisville gets me stoked for future midwestern adventures.  v

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