If Washington Can’t Commit, Chicago is Ready to Go It Alone

» Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel announces billions for infrastructure upgrades. 

Though the details are not yet in full view, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s proposal to spend $7.2 billion over the next three years on infrastructure upgrades represents a truly significant advance in the field of municipal investment in the United States. It’s a unified plan to spend public and private funds on improved transit, parks, water, and educational facilities.

What a contrast to the U.S. Congress, an allusion to which I can hardly overlook in this context. Last week, House and Senate officials pushed forward an extension of the existing surface transportation legislation — the ninth such extension since SAFETEA-LU, the previous law, originally was supposed to expire in 2009.

The problem, suffice it to say, is not cowardice or nonsense political wheeling-dealing, but rather relatively minor — but painfully partisan — differences in perspective on the national transportation system. Over in the House, Republicans have campaigned for no increase in spending on mobility infrastructure (under the guise of fiscal moderation, with the goal of remaining within the constraints imposed by revenues provided by the Highway Trust Fund). Transit and other alternative mobility programs have been put under threat. In the Senate, Democrats promoted (and passed) a small increase in overall funding through a diversion of money from general (non-gas tax) revenues.

Now the Congress has given itself an extra ninety days to pick up the slack and somehow pull together a bipartisan transportation bill in the middle of campaign season in a presidential election year. The task is practically herculean.

In that sense, comparing Mr. Emanuel’s progress with the non-action out of Washington is unfair — Chicago’s strong mayoralty, which has almost direct control over public transportation, education, and the parks, allows swifter, more direct action than is possible in the heavily contested national legislature. And perhaps unlike in the federal government, there is basically universal support at the local level for the idea that the public infrastructure must be improved upon.

Emanuel’s plan, which has been dubbed “Building a New Chicago,” would guarantee investments in significant upgrades across the city. Some of the announcement is a media device — much of the spending would have occurred announcement or not — but much of it is being financed through “reforms, efficiencies, cuts in central offices, direct user fees, and… the Chicago Infrastructure Trust,” according to the mayor’s office. This is not, in other words, the same-old, same-old.

The city must be able to show that it can save significantly by improving the delivery of its existing services. One example, for instance, is in the creation of bus rapid transit services on Jeffrey Boulevard and in the Loop, both of which are part of the plan, and each of which would improve the daily experience of transit users even as they reduce operations costs for the Chicago Transit Authority. Similar improvements, such as a $225 million retrofit program, would save money in the long term by reducing energy consumption.

Other projects, such as the completion of the Bloomingdale Trail (the Chicago equivalent of New York’s High Line), the upgrading of many of the city’s parks, the update of the water system, the improvement of many schools, and the renovation of 100 El rapid transit stations, would be funded as well. Though the exact method by which they would be financed has not yet been established, it seems evident that some mix of user fees and private spending will be on hand. The latter will be made possible through the Infrastructure Trust, which Mayor Emanuel announced a month ago. The Trust would use debt and equity investment to leverage private investment for infrastructure. It could be an innovative mechanism to speed repairs to the city’s public environment.

Unlike his predecessor, Mayor Richard Daley, Mr. Emanuel has produced a plan that would not result in the privatization of infrastructure. Mr. Daley’s 2008 parking meter deal notoriously lost the city billions of dollars, even as it deprived the city of control over much of its street space. The Trust would allow for private profit-making without handing over full control — a reasonable compromise.

Mr. Emanuel’s interest in investing in infrastructure is a logical extension of the arguments he has made since he was sworn in to office about 11 months ago. His administration, like that of most other cities, has been troubled by the decline in tax revenues resulting from the nation’s extended economic difficulty. He has had to balance budgets through difficult moves like school closings.

Yet unlike leaders of other cities, Emanuel has not yet made the push for increases in taxes to pay for infrastructure, unlike, say, Los Angeles. In some ways, this represents a strategic move; rather than assume that voters are ready to contribute more to a not-perfect system, there has been an effort here to live within the city’s existing means. If this can be done without imposing too much austerity on public services, it will raise confidence in the local government’s ability to perform adequately.

Chicago’s decision to fund its projects in such a manner is something that most cities could likely emulate with few negative political results. They just have to be more willing to experiment with creative financing and efficiencies.

In the years ahead, though, even a $7.2 billion investment will be inadequate to resolve some of the city’s most significant transportation needs, such as the renovation of northern section of the Red and Purple Lines and the extension of the Red Line south to 130th Street (each of which Mr. Emanuel has announced his intention to pursue) — not to mention more long-term efforts to extend the Orange Line, build a new downtown subway tunnel, and create a citywide BRT network. If those projects are ever going to make it into construction, Washington will need to step up its game, as even cities like Chicago need federal support for the biggest investments.

Image above: Bloomingdale Trail, from Flickr user vespar avenue (cc)

31 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • Danny

    t unlike leaders of other cities, Emanuel has not yet made the push for increases in taxes to pay for infrastructure, unlike, say, Los Angeles. In some ways, this represents a strategic move; rather than assume that voters are ready to contribute more to a not-perfect system, there has been an effort here to live within the city’s existing means. If this can be done without imposing too much austerity on public services, it will raise confidence in the local government’s ability to perform adequately.

    BRAVO!!! This is how it is supposed to be done! Build trust in your ability to execute…then go after the funding.

    • Jerard

      Emanuel is actually borrowing a strategy from Daley, but Richard J Daley.

      That was Richard J Daley’s bread-and-butter approach to politics; build faith and trust with the taxpayers by showing that you’re competent to build and spend what you have before you ask for more funds.

  • 23skidoo

    What’s the “new downtown subway tunnel”? Part of the circle line?

    • Beta Magellan

      I’m guessing Yonah’s referring to the proposed west loop subway that would run under Larrabee, Kingsbury and Clinton between Cermak/Chinatown and North/Clybourn. It was a wishlist item during the Daley years and was part of a proposed multi-level West Loop Transportation Center with a bus subway above and through-tracks for commuter and intercity rail below . I’m not sure if it’s still on the wishlist, especially since the city’s looking at doing major renovations—potentially including through-running—at Union Station (potentially in coordination with rebuilding Canal Street) in the short-to-medium term and (AFAIK) has pretty much abandoned idea of a grandiose multi-level WLTC.

      • DBX

        Removing 222 Riverside and enabling through running at Union Station eliminates the need for a WLTC, but does not alter the situation with the Clinton Street subway. The subway is desperately needed to connect our major rail terminals with the rapid transit system and for enabling the West Loop in general to fulfill its potential.

        • Nathanael

          I’ve never figured out where the Clinton (or variant Canal) Street Subway was supposed to connect at the north and south ends. They’ve run out of spare branches of the old El, and it makes no sense to have a “stubway”…

  • david vartanoff

    Nice pic of the Bloomingdale ROW. While a ‘High Line’ strip park is a nice idea, the ROW could easily be grafted onto the Blue Line where they cross adding L service to asn underserved area.

  • FG

    Is that picture even of the Bloomingdale Trail? It looks suspiciously European.

    I don’t think el service is worth it, the trail only at most like two miles long, this is one place LRT would make more sense (street running rather than up on the viaduct).

    • Steve M

      I’d assume el service would branch off the Blue Line, so it’d be through-running to the Loop, which LRT would not. That said, I don’t know enough about Chicago ridership patterns to have any sense whether either one is a good idea.

      • FG

        There’s areas that need service more – and I think the trail will be a big draw, there is a lot of excitement about it. Long term revisiting some of the old subway plans might prove useful.

        A lot of this program is basic infrastructure, sewers and water lines, repaving streets (Lake Shore Drive downtown is like Swiss cheese in places, particularly at the river x’ing), schools. Repairs that have been neglected, etc, though I hope we don’t have the issues that we had under Daley Sr which was, well, the policies were, slowly, gradually and inexorably heading the city to financial ruin. If this gets managed right, which I’m not confident that Rahmipoo can, then it would be a big benefit to the city.

  • This would seem to provide little for the South Lakefront/Southeast Side – there are no ‘L’ stations east of Cottage Grove Ave. at 63rd St.

  • Red Line Extension Left Off Emanuel’s Infrastructure Plans

    http://progressillinois.com/posts/content/2012/04/03/red-line-extension-left-emanuel-s-infrastructure-plans

    Matthew Blake Tuesday April 3rd, 2012, 4:58pm

    Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s “Building a New Chicago” speech last Thursday outlined $7.2 billion in infrastructure improvements he wants the city to tackle over the next four years. One project was conspicuous in its absence – extending the Chicago Transit Authority Red Line, from 95th Street to the end of the city at 130th Street.

    Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s “Building a New Chicago” speech last Thursday outlined $7.2 billion in infrastructure improvements he wants the city to tackle over the next four years. One project was conspicuous in its absence – extending the Chicago Transit Authority Red Line, from 95th Street to the end of the city at 130th Street.

    Since the 1960s, city planners have discussed extending the Red Line to connect the predominantly African-American and economically marginalized far South Side Chicago neighborhoods with the rest of the city’s economy. As a candidate for mayor, Emanuel said that expansion of the Red Line would be his first transportation priority.

    But Emanuel spokesman Tom Alexander confirmed the Red Line extension was not part of Building a New Chicago. Alexander said the mayor only included projects where a funding source was identified.

    This is arguably a fuzzy distinction. The city can identify a possible funding source for any project. But that’s not the same as said source agreeing to pay for the project.

    For example, Emanuel prominently included another runway for O’Hare International Airport in his infrastructure speech. But the funding source is private airline companies, who have not agreed to pay the money.

    Alexander referred subsequent questions to the Chicago Transit Authority.

    Chicago Transit Authority spokeswoman Catherine Hosinski said that CTA continues to see the Red Line extension as a longer-term project. Hosinki added that the city and CTA “continues to explore multiple funding avenues to make these projects a reality.”

    Advocates for extending the Red Line were discouraged by Emanuel’s infrastructure speech.

    “We are becoming increasingly concerned about the mayor and CTA not properly communicating about their public investment strategies,” says John Paul Jones, an organizer at the Developing Communities Project, a faith-based group in the Roseland neighborhood.

    Jones, though, holds out hope that the Infrastructure Trust Emanuel introduced at last month’s City Council meeting could mean private investors committing to the Red Line extension. Jones said that his group is scheduled to meet with the mayor’s office later this week.

    However, Steve Schlickman, director of the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Urban Transportation Center and former head of the Regional Transit Authority, is skeptical that the emerging trend of privatizing public infrastructure projects can work with the Red Line extension.

    Schlickman says that he is not clear on how the Infrastructure Trust will exactly work. But he points out that a Red Line extension is probably unattractive to private investors. “Projects like that are very expensive upfront,” Schlickman says – reported estimates put the extension at $1.4 billion. “And there is no expectation that a Red Line transit line will have surplus operations revenue.”

    Federal money would likely pay for much of a possible Red Line extension: the CTA’s Hosinski cited the federal New Starts program as a possible funding source.

    But there must be matching local money for the federal government to consider the project – at least 20 percent of the project must be locally funded, and often that figure is higher, according to Schlickman. And – as noted by the mayor’s office – the city and CTA have not identified this local funding.

    The mayor’s office has further constrained itself, Schlickman notes, through a commitment to no new taxes that Emanuel made in the infrastructure speech.

    One local funding possibility is creating a Far South Side Tax Increment Financing, or TIF, district. Jones says that he worked with his alderman – Carrie Austin (34th) – on the creation of a TIF. A call to Austin’s office this afternoon was not returned.

    The Red Line was not before pushed as a private investment opportunity, but as a way for government to better connect the city. CTA estimates that a current day trip from Altgeld Gardens public housing projects on 133rd St. to City Hall takes an hour, and involves a combination of three different buses, or two buses and a Metra line.

    • FG

      “CTA estimates that a current day trip from Altgeld Gardens public housing projects on 133rd St. to City Hall takes an hour, and involves a combination of three different buses, or two buses and a Metra line.”

      So how exactly would the metra electric conversion HELP the areas which would be served by the red line extension? One less bus and then another downtown or a longer walk don’t seem like advantages. I’m actually asking seriously here.

      • There would be a Gray Line stop at Altgeld Gardens (and the Ford Plant, which the RLE would N O T serve).

        The RLE (and the Red Line itself) have NO major job centers along the line until downtown.

        The Gray Line has Chicago Sniumtate U., University of Chicago and Hospitals, MS&I, 53rd St Shopping District, McCormick Place, and the Museum Campus.

        The RLE would create only a small amount of TOD, and obviously only south of 95th; the Gray Line would stimulate Billions in TOD from Millennium Park downtown to Hegewisch and Blue Island.

        • Adirondacker12800

          ah yea I can hear the NIMBY’s now “You are trying to turn the South Side into Queens” I give it a few weeks before they come up with “Queensification”

          • How can there be NIMBY?? The trains are running every day already right now.

            • Adirondacker12800

              THey are going to be doing all of this TOD-y-ness over the railroad tracks. NIMBYs will be coming out of the woodwork when you propose upzoning around their nice suburban-esque Metra Electric Station.

              • It sure doesn’t seem to bother folks on the North Side – like at Bryn Mawr and Granville on the Red Line.

                Or the new Hyatt Hotel & Development at 53rd & Lake Park Ave.

              • Beta Magellan

                Adirondacker, there’s barely any investment in the area CTA Gray Line’s talking about as-is—Roseland isn’t some prissy suburban idyll (and a good portion of the land in the walkshed south of 95th is taken up by industrial uses).

                That said, there are issues with Pullman, which is historically preserved and has the problem of housing stock that’s fairly undesirable for most modern homeowners.

              • Eric

                Whatever you do, someone will oppose it. If hypothetically the Gray Line existed and for some reason there was a plan to downgrade it to regular Metra service, there would be MUCH more opposition. And that’s the way opposition should be measured.

              • DBX

                @CTA Grey Line, the condo development around Bryn Mawr (Catalpa Gardens) was very controversial, and caused political difficulties for the alderman (Mary Ann Smith) who approved it. I agree, this type of TOD is good policy, but actually selling it is tough. It would help if the CTA would sufficiently true the wheels on their trains so that they do not create a deafening sound that reverberates off the sides of buildings like Catalpa Gardens and blights the entire neighborhood. The noise of the CTA trains is purely a maintenance and management problem and it’s a major barrier both to transit expansion and to TOD.

  • I am one small Brown Ant grappling with large Herds of Elephants, so I truely have my work cut out for me.

  • david vartanoff

    all the more reason for implementing the Gray Line. In the 50s Jeffrey riders often changed to the IC @ Bryn Mawr; if Metra Electric were frequent and fare integrated riders would have a quicker trip to the Loop with NO potential of a traffic jam on Lake Shore Drive. Obviously if the 16 catchment ends at 67th, those riders would be better off walking the four blocks to Bryn Mawr for the next Gray Line train.

  • infrastructure trust = austerity bullshit

Leave a Reply

 

 

 

Comment preview below as you type. You can use these HTML tags

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>


three − = 1

For help if you have trouble posting or your comment is marked as spam, please email:
info (at) thetransportpolitic.com | Comment Rules

The Site / The Fight

by Yonah Freemark

yfreemark (at) thetransportpolitic (dot) com

  • Le progrès ne vaut que s'il est partagé par tous.

Email newsletter

Network

rss feed
comments feed
twitter feed
email update