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Gas tax swap merely latest sleight of hand
Daily Herald Editorial Board
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Published: 11/28/2007 12:52 AM

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"This is not our preferred solution," said Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan in a letter to lawmakers giving tepid support to the latest Springfield shell game.

Not only is the plan to take suburban gas taxes and give it to public transit agencies not preferred, but it is no solution at all. It's but another Band-Aid masquerading as public policy. And it's a plan guaranteed to cause budget problems elsewhere, probably at the expense of highway and bridge projects that would serve far more suburban residents than does public transit.

The plan to be discussed by the General Assembly when it returns today calls for the $385 million now generated by gas taxes in the six-county metro area to be given to the CTA and RTA, which have threatened rate hikes and route cuts if they don't get some financial help.

No, residents wouldn't pay more than they're now paying at the pump under this plan. So no, legislators wouldn't have to defend a tax hike during an election season. That apparently makes it semi-acceptable to many, including House Republican leader Tom Cross, who has given his approval.

What area residents might not realize at the moment but should is that the $385 million was already slated for highway and bridge improvements throughout the area, improvements desperately needed in the suburbs.

The proposed cash swap is like nearly every other plan floated under this governor and this legislature. It takes from one area of need and gives it to another, with no provision for a long-term solution, no regard for the problems it creates and little fiscal responsibility.

Simply put, you can't have improved or expanded services with the same amount of money, at least not without invoking major efficiencies to cut costs. None of the players here -- the transit agencies, the governor or the General Assembly -- can be described as models of efficiency.

We still believe the transportation solution is a suburban sales tax and Chicago real estate transfer tax coupled with reforms that have been endorsed by the RTA. Short of that, we cannot support this irresponsible approach to governance that puts out one fire only to start another.

Supporting legislators are apparently banking on the fact that this plan, unlike all the others that have flared briefly before dying quickly, can move forward because it involves no tax increase in a period when beleaguered taxpayers are decidedly chilly toward the government asking for more.

But suburban representatives will have a very hard time justifying their giving constituents' gas tax money to transit agencies that many of their constituents don't use.

That's especially so when necessary bridge work doesn't get done even after the fatal bridge collapse in Minnesota and as drivers fume in suburban highway gridlock.