By Pat Krochmal
Investment in infrastructure, not only locally, but across the nation, is absolutely necessary to move the economy forward.
That was the message delivered by Congressman Brad Schneider (IL-10), a Deerfield resident and member of the House Committee on Small Business, during the Transportation Management Association of Lake and Cook Counties' annual meeting June 7 at Baxter Healthcare in Deerfield.
"Infrastructure is a necessary component for a strong economy and you can't go too far along without paying attention to infrastructure," Schneider said. "We are paying the price now. We need to invest in projects that have the greatest return on our investments -- roads, rails and transportation issues, but also education. Those are investments that will create jobs today and also provide them for the long term."
Every sector of the economy depends on good infrastructure and that needs to be reflected in our national priorities. In the local community, that is most clearly seen in the manufacturing sector, he added.
"We're home to one of the most prolific manufacturing districts in America with manufacturing employing nearly 100,000 workers, meaning much of our local economy depends on the health and future of these businesses," Schneider said. "This may surprise you, but the 10th Congressional District has the third highest concentration of manufacturing of any district in the country."
Manufacturers need to ship, import and export. And innovators need a national infrastructure built to sustain their activities, but the crumbling infrastructure is hindering economic development and preventing entrepreneurs from launching their ideas, Schneider said.
More than 73 percent of the roads are in poor to mediocre shape. Some suburban communities face big transportation gaps. Bridges and ports are in desperate need of repair, he added.
Schneider noted that a long term transportation authorization package that will upgrade the national infrastructure is needed.
"But we are beginning to see signs of progress. Here in our community, we are planning the most ambitious road improvement plan in the area's history," he said. "With the help of federal HUD grants, we're seeing plans for street corridor improvements in Waukegan and Round Lake Heights. And an additional $2 million in transportation funds is coming to Lake County itself."
Schneider also stated there was optimism for the reauthorization of the transportation bill, also known as Map 21, which expires in September of 2014.
Both the senate and house transportation and infrastructure committee are working hard to enact a six-year authorization measure, he added.
"Simply put, cutting the surface infrastructure money would be devastating to our economy. That is why it is essential that congress works together to pass a long term, fully-financed transportation authorization."
Metra Rail Planning Director David Kralik said that Metra needs financial help.
To keep Metra in good repair, every year four locomotives should be replaced and eight rehabbed; 17 cars should be replaced and 52 rehabbed, he said. Also, five stations, 20 platforms and eight bridges should be replaced or rehabbed, and 110,000 ties and 105 grade crossings should be replaced.
"If we add all this up in these six areas alone, our annual capital needs are $235 million," Kralik said. "In our 2013 capital program, we have only been able to budget for $155 million. That left an $80 million shortfall in just these six areas, not to mention everything else."
However, Thomas J. Ross, executive director of PACE, said the state legislature has provided PACE with bonding authority for very specific projects during the next four or five years. It also has given PACE money for safety measures, since not having accidents saves money, he added.
With state funding, Ross is planning to buy four Compressed Natural Gas buses, which use a fossil fuel substitute for gasoline and diesel, and are supposed to be cleaner and more environmentally friendly.
Also through the state, Ross found a way to replace the aging radio system for $10 million instead of $20 million.
Upcoming PACE projects include: service expansion on I-55 with buses on the road's shoulders; adoption of the VENTRA Project, an open fare system that both Pace and the CTA will use; and buses on the shoulders of the Edens Expressway.
William Baltutis, executive director of TMA, the non-profit that improves employees' commute to work, noted that if elected officials in Springfield and Washington saw the value that transportation provides for employees and communities, they would support infrastructure programs.
"Investment in infrastructure boosts productivity by allowing people to get to places faster, communicate more easily, spend less time commuting and less money on fares," he added.