Firm hired to pitch tram system

URBANA - The high-stakes competition for federal transit dollars that would pay for a fixed-rail system in Champaign-Urbana has prompted the Mass Transit District to hire a well-connected Chicago lobbying firm to press the local cause.

The MTD hired Schlickman & Associates on a one-year contract beginning Feb. 1 at a minimum of $13,000 a month - $156,000 a year. The firm's job is to advocate for a still-evolving local proposal for a rail system whose creation depends on Federal Transportation Administration and congressional support under the reauthorization of the Transportation Equity Act.

MTD officials said the use of the firm is critical to any hope of success for what is a dynamic and critical change in the transportation structure of the community.

?We've got a complex process to follow, including political and bureaucratic procedures we simply are not familiar with,? said MTD board Chairman H. George Friedman. ?To wander through this labyrinth without assistance would be to invite failure.?

The Schlickman contract also calls for assistance on the state level and advising the MTD on other financing strategies, such as leverage leasing and joint development opportunities.

The Schlickman firm specializes in lobbying for transportation and infrastructure-related projects. Owner Stephen Schlickman formerly headed the city of Chicago's federal relations office in Washington, D.C. During the 1980s, he managed federal, state and local government relations for major Chicago public transit agencies.

For this project, Schlickman is teaming with a firm called the C2 Group, a Washington, D.C.-based firm whose principals include John Cline, a former special assistant for intergovernmental affairs under President George Bush and former director of the Office of Congressional Affairs for the U.S. Department of Transportation.

U.S. Rep. Tim Johnson, R-Urbana, said his first knowledge of the MTD's hiring of the lobbyists was when Cline called one of his staffers last week.

?They could've just called me,? Johnson said of the MTD officials.

Johnson is a member of the House Transportation Committee and its Highways, Transit and Pipelines Subcommittee that has spent much of the last year laying the groundwork for the 2003 reauthorization of the Transportation Equity Act. The act serves as the funding platform for what could be anywhere from $30 billion to $60 billion in new transportation spending, from highways to mass transit.

?My first reaction,? Johnson said, ?is that I have a very good relationship with Bill Volk and the MTD with respect to their project. I can't tell them how to run their operation. But to me the best form of lobbying is for Bill Volk and (Champaign council member) Tom Bruno to lobby me. I'm local. I'm right here. Nobody has to hire a lobbying firm to communicate with me or the rest of the Illinois delegation.?

U.S. Rep. Bill Lipinski, D-Chicago, is the ranking member of the same subcommittee.

?How they spend their money is their own business, but it seems to me not a particularly wise use of taxpayer dollars,? Johnson said.

MTD General Manager Bill Volk said the firm's role goes beyond lobbying and involves information gathering and helping guide the MTD through the application process.

The scope of work outlined in the contract calls for:

- Implementing ?an action plan to achieve the federal actions to obtain federal funding.?

- Regular review of the evolution of the legislation and advice to the MTD on how to adjust its application to obtain support for an appropriation.

- Assist with developing the MTD grant application and information submissions to transportation officials and Congress.

- Provide policy support to ?champions? for the project who will advocate the project's position with Congress and the relevant committees.

A similar scope of work is outlined for the state level.

Volk said the MTD board's unanimous support for the contract was based not only on the firm's lobbying ability but also its ability to help guide the agency through an unfamiliar process.

?These are people with extensive experience with this process. It is unusual for the MTD. This is an unusual project, but the use of this caliber of firm is not unusual in this arena,? Volk said.

The government agencies the MTD will be in competition with, such as the Chicago Transit Authority, have governmental relations staffs, as well as lobbying firms, working for them.

The MTD has used lobbyist assistance in the past, typically lobbyists working for the state transit association, but that help is on behalf of applications for $2 million to $3 million.

In this case, the MTD is hoping for in the neighborhood of $150 million in aid for a center-city rail system that would relieve overburdened buses and attract new riders to an already popular mass transit system.

Such a rail system here has been hailed as a prototype for how systems can be integrated in a small-city setting.

In September 2001, the MTD commissioned a $500,000 study of how such a system would work here. The consultants are scheduled to be back in town at the end of March to help narrow choices of systems to a locally preferred alternative.

The Champaign-Urbana system is already at capacity in the central campus, carrying 30,000 riders an hour on 50 buses at peak times of the day.

Friedman said the justification for such a system is there if the decision makers will listen.

?We have more ridership than cities 10 times our size. I do not exaggerate,? Friedman said. ?We have to be heard. These are people we don't deal with every day.?

Johnson, for one, said MTD's hiring of the firm won't preclude him from working for the project.

But he said that's why he has a staff of 15, including one person who works almost exclusively with the transportation subcommittee and two others who contribute.

?I'm not trying to bash the project. I know they've done a lot of work,? Johnson said. ?But you have to question why they have to spend this kind of money. What does somebody in Chicago or Washington know about the dynamics of the needs of Champaign-Urbana??

Johnson said the expenditure is also questionable given the state of the federal budget and the competition for transportation dollars within the district.

Just in East Central Illinois, he said, he has been working on behalf of appropriations for Olympian Drive and the Curtis Road interchange in Champaign, Winter Avenue in Danville and a new Interstate 57 exit at Mattoon.

?I don't respond well to lobbyists from Chicago or Washington telling me what's good for my district,? he said.

You can reach J. Philip Bloomer at (217) 351-5371 or via e-mail at pbloomer@news-gazette.com.

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