By John Schwartz, New York Times, March 29, 2012
Chicago is embarking on a $7 billion plan to transform the city’s infrastructure from the skies above to the pipes underground.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel is planning to announce the initiative Thursday. It includes projects to expand the city’s largest airport and improve its streets, water system, schools, community colleges, parks and commuter rail network. The city estimates that these initiatives will create 30,000 jobs over the next three years.
At a time when the nation is only beginning to pull itself painfully and delicately out of a deep recession, and when cities and states are cutting essential services and wondering how to keep the courthouses open and the lights on, an infrastructure proposal for a single city with an estimated cost in the billions — with a “b” — is audacious. Mr. Emanuel, in an interview, suggested that nothing less than this “integrated, comprehensive approach” will do for what he calls “building a new Chicago.”
With the plan, Chicago is taking a leading role among cities and states struggling to keep their infrastructure from crumbling further but frustrated with legislative gridlock in Washington, said Robert Puentes, director of the metropolitan infrastructure initiative at the Brookings Institution.
“There is tremendous interest in doing something different — people aren’t waiting for the federal government to raise the gasoline tax or pass the carbon tax and have money raining down,” he said. He cited successful campaigns in “can-do states” that include Colorado, Washington, Arizona and Virginia to finance economic development projects with public-private partnerships, and Los Angeles’ vote in support of a major transportation referendum in 2008.
Mr. Emanuel, who served in the White House in two administrations and as a member of Congress, said “I will not tie this city’s future to the dysfunction in Washington and Springfield.”
In the speech, to be delivered at the Chicagoland Laborers’ Training and Apprentice Center, Mr. Emanuel will describe the financing for the sprawling plan. Some of it will come from the newly created Chicago Infrastructure Trust, an initiative announced this month by Mayor Emanuel and former President Bill Clinton, who has long had an interest in infrastructure and energy efficiency. The fund, a nonprofit corporation, pools outside investment and applies it to a wide range of possible projects.
Other funds will come from cost cutting, some from the savings in energy and water use from retrofitting buildings, and some from user fees, but “none of these funds will come from an increase in property or sales taxes,” according to the speech. A copy was provided to The New York Times through the mayor’s office. Depending on the project, some of the investment would be paid back through interest on loans, others through profit sharing.
Still, economic development efforts in the past have tended to disappoint, Mr. Puentes noted, because they tended to pay businesses to relocate or threw money into projects like stadiums. Some public-private partnership projects have been criticized as giveaways to the private businesses that take them over — including two prominent cases in Chicago itself, the privatized Chicago Skyway and the city’s parking meter system, which obligate the city to leases that span generations. Mr. Emanuel says that the city has learned an important lesson, and that “I am not leasing anything,” or selling off the city’s assets, he said in an interview. “I’m using private capital to improve a public entity that stays public.”
The investments, by any measure, are enormous, and they are intended to tackle enormous problems for this aging city. “You can’t have a 21st-century economy on a 20th-century foundation without holding yourself back,” Mr. Emanuel said. The projects include $1 billion for the Chicago Transit Authority to renovate more than 100 stations and eliminate “slow zones” that cost riders an estimated 11,000 hours of delays every day. O’Hare International Airport will receive $1.4 billion over the next three years to expand capacity.
Underground, the city will take on the challenge of fixing its water system, which suffered 3,800 leaks last year. That means replacing 900 miles of pipe that is more than 100 years old and replacing or relining 750 miles of sewer lines, among other projects estimated at $1.4 billion. Projects would be coordinated so that a street dug up to repair pipes could get broadband cables and other work done at the same time so that the streets would not be resurfaced only to be dug up again soon after.
Mr. Emanuel served in Congress and as White House Chief of Staff for President Obama, prior to this stint as Mayor of the swashbuckling city of Chicago, after a mini-dynasty of Daleys as mayor.
Now only is his going to retrofit the infrastructure, he is also going to bring Chicago schools into the 21st century (less than half of the students graduate currently!) and balance the budget, but he is going to prove that politics and politicians can and do get things done.
It would seem that the Mayor, who formerly served in the Israeli army, and also studied ballet, has caught the essence of the famous city, made legendary by the American poet Carl Sandburg:
HOG Butcher for the World,
Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat,
Player with Railroads and the Nation's Freight Handler;
Stormy, husky, brawling,
City of the Big Shoulders:
They tell me you are wicked and I believe them, for I
have seen your painted women under the gas lamps
luring the farm boys.
And they tell me you are crooked and I answer: Yes, it
is true I have seen the gunman kill and go free to
And they tell me you are brutal and my reply is: On the
faces of women and children I have seen the marks
of wanton hunger.
And having answered so I turn once more to those who
sneer at this my city, and I give them back the sneer
and say to them:
Come and show me another city with lifted head singing
so proud to be alive and coarse and strong and cunning.
Flinging magnetic curses amid the toil of piling job on
job, here is a tall bold slugger set vivid against the
little soft cities;
Fierce as a dog with tongue lapping for action, cunning
as a savage pitted against the wilderness,
Building, breaking, rebuilding,
Under the smoke, dust all over his mouth, laughing with
Under the terrible burden of destiny laughing as a young
Laughing even as an ignorant fighter laughs who has
never lost a battle,
Bragging and laughing that under his wrist is the pulse.
and under his ribs the heart of the people,
Laughing the stormy, husky, brawling laughter of
Youth, half-naked, sweating, proud to be Hog
Butcher, Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat, Player with
Railroads and Freight Handler to the Nation.
Emanuel was constantly reminded by his father, "Just get it done!" when he was growing up. Brothers who work as doctors and executives in the film industry, along with their "blue-mouth" brother the Mayor who clashed with Hillary Clinton in the Obama administration for his abrasive and vulgar approach to both issues and people illustrate the old maxim, 'this acorn did not fall far from the tree".
We say a hearty "congratulations" to the Mayor of Chicago. Who really cares if you want to be the next governor of Illinois? If you get even 75% of this ambitious plan completed, on time and within budget, you will be in line for the thanks of the people of your city...and many others who might just take a page from your interesting and colourful book.