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Senate hopefuls agree on transit needs, disagree on funding
By Kerry Lester | Daily Herald Staff

Alexi Giannoulias


Mark Kirk


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Published: 8/27/2010 12:01 AM

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The two men who want to be Illinois' next U.S. senator both say improving public transportation for suburban residents is a top priority, though they have different ideas about how to implement and pay for some major projects.

"Talking with residents of the collar counties, one of their main complaints is sitting in traffic, wasting their time," Chicago Democrat Alexi Giannoulias said.

He said one of the projects he will focus on is the Suburban Transit Access Route (STAR) Metra Line, a suburb-to-suburb commuter line approved more than a decade ago but placed on the back burner due to lack of funding.

The state treasurer said he hopes to finally fund the project through a "more equitable allocation of transportation dollars" between highway and mass transit spending, and also through his proposed National Infrastructure Fund.

The fund would bring top economists, engineers and urban planning experts together to prioritize public works projects, with the most highly ranked job paid for by the federal treasury. Giannoulias said it would be paid for by ending tax breaks for big oil companies.

Giannoulias supports a public-private partnership to help fund a project called CREATE that would alleviate congestion on several Metra routes that share tracks with freight rail lines, and the expansion of "high-speed" passenger rail by upgrading existing tracks and equipment, which would cap speed at 110 miles per hour.

"The focus needs to be on better efficiency," he said. "Maximizing efficiencies on the current rails, at least in the short term."

Giannoulias also said he backs expansion and modernization of O'Hare International Airport, and the possibility of adding a South suburban airport, if paid for with private money.

Kirk, a five-term congressman, is touting his work to improve transportation in his 10th District.

If elected to the Senate, Kirk said he would push to expand Metra in the West and Southwest suburbs.

Kirk, too, supports O'Hare expansion and modernization, a decision where he said he "broke early" on from the Republican Party on. He says he's met recently with Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley about speeding up the airport project and getting more federal funding for it. He also backs a third airport located in the South suburbs.

"Our next senator should look very long term with another airport. But it needs to be controlled by the Will County folks that live there," he said.

He also hopes to expand high-speed rail. Kirk says he wants new and faster tracks built quickly in order to more effectively compete with short-distance air travel.

Kirk said high speed rail, along with the STAR Line and CREATE, could all be paid for through a public-private partnership. In the case of high speed rail, he advocated for the private companies to control the technology used on the track, the prices charged, and scheduling, in order to "better control reliability."

Kirk said he'd be "open minded" to the idea of a National Infrastructure Fund, as proposed by Giannoulias, but warned against relying too much on the federal treasury.

"With the country $1.3 trillion in debt, the most effective representative is not going to say, I need more federal money," Kirk said."There is a way of thinking that has become dominant in Washington is that only projects that can go forward are the ones entirely funded by the federal government."