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Stimulus Bill Shortchanges Chicago Transit, State Has $700M Wish List

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With Congress set to vote Friday on the nearly $800 billion economic stimulus package, details have seeped out about how the money will be divided. It appears many Chicago and Illinois projects are getting less than expected.

Though Amtrak should expect a boost, Chicago transportation took a big hit, Greg Hinz reports on his Crain's Chicago Business blog.

It looks like the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA), Metra and other local public-transit operators will get a bit under $400 million for new capital projects, just a small slice of what they say are their unmet needs for new equipment, stations and the like. That figure had been around $600 million under the House version of the bill, but the money went away at the last minute as the $50 billion was trimmed form the overall stimulus package.

Airport funding was also slashed, Hinz reports, meaning that Mayor Daley will have to find enough for the O'Hare Airport expansion project from a $1.1 billion pot for the nation's major airports, rather than the $3 billion the House-- and Daley-- wanted.

The FutureGen coal project, which Capitol Fax called Sen. Dick Durbin's "top priority for the bill," is reportedly a goner as well.

Illinois transportation officials nevertheless have a $700 million stimulus projects wish list. The AP obtained it and has the details in the article below. Chicago is absent from the list as the city has kept a tight lid on its plans, despite calls for transparency from the City Council.

And no matter how much money Illinois receives, there is no specific individual, office or task force charged with administering it, a contrast to some other neighboring states.

Full AP article on IDOT stimulus list:

CHICAGO (AP) -- Road-repair projects dominate a nearly $700 million wish list from Illinois transportation officials seeking funding under President Barack Obama's stimulus aimed at turning around the flagging U.S. economy.

Among the projects on the 32-page list obtained Thursday by The Associated Press are a more than $21 million reconstruction of Interstate 294 southwest of Chicago to an $8 million resurfacing of Illinois 33 in Crawford County.

Other requests include $18 million for noise barriers along I-55 through Joliet and more than $35 million for I-55 work in Madison County, which would include bridge replacement. Dozens of other bridge-repair projects also are included.

The Illinois Department of Transportation had previously refused to release the list. The list has been sent to the Federal Highway Administration for review, IDOT spokeswoman Paris Ervin said, but it is subject to change based on public comment.

IDOT planned to post the list on its Web site Friday, Ervin said.

One public watchdog group director who examined the list Thursday said he was encouraged by the emphasis on repair work - rather than new construction.

"They're putting their emphasis on fix-it-first projects to make sure the stimulus money's going where it's urgently needed, crumbling roads and bridges," said Brian Imus, director of Illinois Public Interest Research Group. "These are projects you can get off the ground quickly, that create jobs quickly."

IDOT's list includes only highway works, not mass transit projects. The agency does not make funding requests for subways, railways or airports, Ervin said.

In December, then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich's office said it had identified projects worth more than $1.5 billion to improve tracks, stations and yards, and to purchase mass-transit vehicles, as well as to expand airports and improve rail infrastructure.

Projects sought by the city of Chicago also are not on the list, though state routes through the city are included. Chicago Mayor Richard Daley's office has released a short description of what it hopes to do with potential stimulus money, but no specifics.

"Quite honestly, we don't see the value of putting out a list of specifics which we're not sure will come to fruition," Daley spokeswoman Jacquelyn Heard said Thursday.

Critics argue that without public scrutiny, pork, earmarks or otherwise inappropriate projects contained in state and city wish lists are more likely to receive federal funds.

"When it's all done in the smoke-filled rooms and behind closed doors - that's what feeds public skepticism and that's what makes people think the fix is in," said Steve Ellis, of the Washington, D.C.-based Taxpayers for Common Sense.

Gov. Pat Quinn's office said Thursday it had no intention of releasing lists from all state agencies working to identify projects that would qualify for stimulus funding, including education or health-related bodies.

"Why would you?" said Quinn spokesman Bob Reed. "Otherwise it's a wish list and what's the sense of making that public - because all you are going to do is raise hopes that you may not be able to provide for."

Reed said federal and state procedures for selecting projects are not clear, making it impossible for him to say how proposed Illinois projects might be vetted and approved.

"The process has to be a little better defined than it is now," he said.

IDOT's decision to release its list didn't change that, Reed said.

"IDOT has released this information and that's within their province," he said. "Our stance remains the same we're waiting to see how much money the stimulus will provide."