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Gas tax hike needed to fund capital bill, says city transportation commissioner

A gas pump

"We haven’t raised our gas tax in nearly 30 years," a top mayoral aide noted on Tuesday. | File photo

Mayor Rahm Emanuel has made “remarkable” progress on the transportation front at a time of “extreme financial stress,” but Illinois desperately needs a capital bill bankrolled by a gas tax increase to pay for a backlog of projects, a top mayoral aide said Tuesday.

After spending the last four years feuding with outgoing Gov. Bruce Rauner, Emanuel has put a transportation funding bill at the top of his wish list for the four months he’ll have to work with Governor-elect J.B. Pritzker before leaving office.

RELATED: No immediate tax hike when Pritzker becomes governor, but expect a capital bill

On Tuesday, the outgoing mayor introduced his Transportation Commissioner Rebekah Scheinfeld before her luncheon address to the City Club of Chicago.

Scheinfeld took the ball and ran with it.

She argued that “current revenue streams” can’t keep pace with “state of good repair needs” for the existing transportation infrastructure, let alone the need to expand capacity.

“With the election of a new governor, we have the opportunity for a new start. The state has not had a capital bill identifying additional revenue streams for transportation in nearly 10 years. And we haven’t raised our gas tax in nearly 30 years,” she said.

Scheinfeld noted there is “talk of something happening in Washington, too” on the transportation funding front.

But she cautioned her audience not to “hold our breath,” but instead, to seize the “real sense of momentum” created by Pritzker’s election.

“The mayor has called on the region and the state’s leaders to come together to address the issue. He has been specific about a gas tax. Let us seize the opportunity to hammer out a long-term transportation funding solution,” she said.

Scheinfeld pointed to the TIFIA loan used to bankroll the downtown Riverwalk, the transit TIF supporting the massive overhaul of the CTA’s Red and Purple Lines and the sale of air rights helping to bankroll redevelopment of Union Station as examples of Emanuel’s “creative solutions” to transportation funding.

She promised to open the “first segment” of the long-stalled Navy Pier Flyover by year’s end to carry pedestrians over Grand and Illinois Streets.

Scheinfeld even touted, almost as a fait-accompli, visionary billionaire Elon Musk’s ambitious to build a “Tesla-in-a-tunnel” transit line to whisk travelers between downtown and O’Hare Airport.

Never mind the controversy about the SEC investigation that forced Musk out as chairman of Tesla Inc. or Musk’s self-inflicted wounds or personal behavior.

“This project has massive potential as a game-changer — and it will be constructed and operated entirely through private funding sources,” Scheinfeld said.

In a wide-ranging speech that highlighted Emanuel’s greatest hits on the transportation front, Scheinfeld talked extensively about the need to “make investments to reaffirm the real value” of CTA bus service to reverse a precipitous decline.

The CTA has been hemorrhaging bus riders –– with a decline of ten million rides last year and a 21 percent drop over the last six years.

A 156 CTA bus lets a passenger onboard in Chicago on July 18, 2018. | Colin Boyle/Sun-Times

A 156 CTA bus lets a passenger onboard in Chicago on July 18, 2018. | Colin Boyle/Sun-Times

The jury is still out on whether the downtown bus rapid transit system known as Loop Link was worth the $32 million investment and whether it really has increased travel times.

But Scheinfeld rendered her own verdict. The city’s investment has “resulted in faster and more reliable CTA bus service in the Loop,” prompting ridership to grow while other lines are declining, she said.

“Folks can quibble about whether we’ve achieved the exact targets planned for the project. But I say most importantly Loop Link shows what is possible,” she said.

“We can redesign our streets to advantage and prioritize high-capacity transit options while also organizing traffic to better serve all users of the roadway. We are not widening roads. We are re-thinking them to leverage precious space to move the most people — not the most cars.”

Scheinfeld closed by talking about the task force led by former U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood charged with re-imagining Chicago’s transportation system in a fast-changing landscape that includes dockless bikes, electric bikes, scooters and skateboards and driverless vehicles.

All of those “innovations” have “tremendous potential to reduce people’s dependence on vehicle ownership and use of cars,” she said.

But they also pose “real challenges” on how to safely “incorporate” those options into the existing transportation network and how to regulate those emerging industries.

“How do we create the right incentives and disincentives so that ride-sharing services don’t just replace transit trips, which adds to congestion and degrades CTA’s efficiency?” she asked aloud.

“How do we design our streets to effectively allocate space to ensure the safety of increasing numbers of people biking and other micro-mobility options to get around? How do we determine which services should be monopolies and which should be competitive markets?”

For years, Emanuel has been accused of tilting the playing field in favor of Uber, whose investors include the mayor’s brother, at the expense of the CTA and a now-decimated taxicab industry.