CHICAGO (STMW) — During a visit to Chicago on Thursday, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood offered no federal commitments to help rebuild or expand the region’s deteriorating transit system.
That was a marked contrast to his last visit to the area about a month ago, when he brought $155 million for the expansion of O’Hare International Airport,
“We’ll work with the folks at the CTA or Metra or whatever in terms of what their needs are. And if we can be helpful to them, we will be helpful to them,” LaHood, a former Republican congressman from Peoria, told the Tribune’s editorial board.
But LaHood focused much of his message on the Obama administration’s efforts to build a national network of high-speed passenger trains. He vowed that opposition from the Republican governors of Wisconsin, Ohio and Florida and Republicans in Congress will not derail the plan to spend $53 billion over six years to create routes that would eventually be within reach of 80 percent of the U.S. population.
So far, $10.5 billion has been appropriated to more than 30 states, including about $1.4 billion to Illinois for the 110 mph Amtrak route between Chicago and St. Louis.
Asked what he would do to help reduce travel times for train and bus commuters in the Chicago area, which suffers from the worst congestion in the nation, LaHood said increased federal investment in local transit systems will hinge on the outcome of the debt-reduction debate in Washington and whether Republicans and Democrats come together this year to pass new transportation spending legislation.
LaHood made no commitment to fulfill Mayor-elect Rahm Emanuel’s stated plan to line up federal funding in his first year in office to extend the south branch of the CTA Red Line from its current terminus at 95th Street another 5.5 miles to 130th Street. The project is estimated to cost more than $1.2 billion. Emanuel also set a high priority on modernizing antiquated CTA stations and old tracks on the North Side, which the CTA estimates would cost up to $4 billion.
“We’re always going to have money at DOT for airport expansion, for transit. We’ll see what the mayor’s vision is, and then we’re going to see how it fits into our budget,” LaHood said.
LaHood said he planned to meet later Thursday with Emanuel, whom he knows as President Barack Obama’s former White House chief of staff. The transportation secretary also said he would invite incoming CTA President Forrest Claypool and Gabe Klein, whom Emanuel selected to head the Chicago Department of Transportation, to Washington to lay out their project priorities and present cost estimates for the work.
LaHood said O’Hare expansion, which has received more than $1 billion in federal support, must move forward to eventual completion.
“I think it is well worth the taxpayer money. This project is not going to die. O’Hare modernization will be completed,” he said.
Meanwhile, embarrassed by reports of air traffic controllers asleep at their jobs, LaHood said that as well-trained professionals, they have a “personal responsibility” to get their job done — including resting when they’re off the clock.
A day after firing controllers in Miami and Knoxville, Tenn., for sleeping at their jobs, LaHood said a recent order to extend the rest time between shifts from eight to nine hours could be extended even longer if needed.
LaHood also explained why he has backed away from a statement in 2009 that he planned to ask automakers to include child safety seats in their crash tests and identify which models were safest with their vehicles. The earlier comments followed a Tribune investigation of potential safety problems with infant car seats.
LaHood’s department recently proposed a voluntary plan under which automakers would identify car seats of varying prices that fit in their vehicles, but car manufacturers would not have to say how these child restraints perform in a crash. On Thursday, LaHood said that when he explored this idea, he found there were 400 different models of cars and 100 different types of child seats, making a broad testing program impractical.
In Europe, safety ratings for vehicles are based in part on how child safety seats — picked by car manufacturers — perform in crash tests of those vehicles.
But Ron Medford, deputy administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, told the Tribune on Thursday that the European vehicle crash-test program includes such a small number of recommended child seat models that “it doesn’t serve the broader need of having a good understanding of how seats perform in that car except for those limited ones.”
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