Mayor unveils details of capital spending planFran Spielmanon April 26, 2021 at 6:00 pm

The Chicago and United States of America flags fly outside City Hall with the Chicago Board of Trade building in view on July 18, 2018.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot on Monday announced details of her capital spending plan, loaded with infrastructure projects. | Sun-Times file

Lightfoot is unveiling details of her five-year capital plan at the start of the 2021 street-paving season.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot famously warned African-American aldermen who dared to vote against her 2021 budget, “Don’t ask me for s—t for the next three years” when it comes to choosing projects for her five-year, $3.7 billion capital plan.

Ald. Jeanette Taylor (20th) was so infuriated, she said it proved Lightfoot was “no better than Daley or Rahm.”

On Monday, that mayoral threat, coming before the closest budget vote Chicago has seen since Council Wars, was all but forgotten at a feel-good press conference launching the five-year capital plan at the start of the 2021 paving season.

There was no more talk about punishing recalcitrant aldermen. Instead, a City Hall news release distributed before the press conference talks about a capital plan that relies on “data to select and prioritize investments across the full array of public assets, address the worst first, along with an emphasis on equity and safety in order to create jobs.”

To emphasize the “equity” component, Lightfoot chose an arterial street resurfacing project at 81st Street and Damen Avenue in Auburn Gresham as the backdrop for Monday’s announcement.

It’s among 75 miles of arterial streets and 500 blocks of residential streets expected to be resurfaced across over the next two years, nearly double Chicago’s annual average. That’s thanks to mayor’s ambitious capital plan as well as an infusion of state and federal funding.

“With paving season underway across our city, we are thrilled to be able to create and offer jobs to our residents that will allow us to make critical infrastructure repairs in all 77 of our neighborhoods,” Lightfoot was quoted as saying in the press release.

“With an emphasis on equity, the Chicago Works infrastructure plan will allow us to invest in the lives of residents in need and bring out entire city closer together by literally building bridges between our communities. This effort will allow us to unlock our city’s full potential, give our residents the resources they need to succeed right in their own neighborhoods and ensure that our city retains its reputation as a world class destination filled with state-of-the-art infrastructure.”

The first two years of the mayor’s capital plan is funded by a $1.4 billion general obligation bond issue approved by the City Council, with $600 million of that spent in the first year.

Projects includes everything from road and bridge repairs, police cars, fire trucks and snow plows to long-deferred maintenance on libraries, fire houses and health centers. There’s even enough money for streetscapes, lighting, sidewalks and bikeways as well as traffic safety improvements and public art.

The goal is to make Chicago a more sustainable and safer city to walk, bike and take mass transit.

“Additional investments in fleet and equipment will not only drive down our operations and maintenance costs, but improve the efficiency and productivity of our workforce, ensuring residents get services faster,” Assets Information and Services Commissioner David Reynolds was quoted as saying.

Transportation Commissioner Gia Biagi said the $3.7 billion capital plan sets the stage for, what she called a “legacy investment in our critical transportation infrastructure,” especially in neighborhoods historically “challenged by mobility and economic hardships.”

“As our city leads the way on recovery from the pandemic, Chicago Works includes funding for streetscapes, lighting, bikeways, bridges, sidewalks, traffic safety, public art and more,” Biagi was quoted as saying.

“These improvements prioritize making it easy to safely move around the city in sustainable ways like walking, biking and taking public transit while making our streets and our public streets and our public way vibrant, safe and inviting places.”

As always with city construction contracts valued at more than $100,000, at least half the jobs must be performed by Chicago residents.

At last week’s City Council meeting, former Black Caucus Chairman Roderick Sawyer (6th) introduced an ordinance to narrow that residency requirement. Instead of just any Chicago residents, he wants half the jobs to go to residents of areas that are “socio-economically disadvantaged.”

“Now more than ever, we must invest in our city’s human infrastructure by providing good-paying, sustainable jobs to stay afloat and contribute to our economic recovery,” Economic and Capital Development Committee Chairman Gilbert Villegas (36th), Lightfoot’s former floor leader, was quoted as saying.

Last fall, aldermen were told the largest capital plan in Chicago history would be bankrolled by a mix of tax increment financing, a first-year bond issue backed by property and/or sales taxes and “interim financing and cash-flow management” in anticipation of future state and federal funding.

That wasn’t good enough to satisfy Civic Federation President Laurence Msall.

Not when Lightfoot’s “pandemic” budget already included a $1.7 billion debt restructuring and refinancing.

“It’s very hard to see how the city could afford to go to market for a $3.7 billion capital plan without a new revenue source to back it up at the same time they’re looking to re-structure their existing debt merely to free up room in the current operating budget,” Msall told the Sun-Times.

“The city is very highly leveraged. It has a very low credit rating. And to undergo that type of additional borrowing without a new revenue source would be very expensive. And it might not be feasible.”

Lightfoot was asked then how the city could afford $3.7 billion in additional debt without a new, clearly identified funding source. “We can’t afford not to,” she replied.

“The need is there. We have to figure out a way to move forward and not just say, `It’s too much. It’s too big.’ We got the same blowback when we said we’re gonna start the process [of replacing] lead service lines. That can’s been kicked down the road so many times, it’s unrecognizable,” the mayor said on that day.

Pounding the podium for emphasis, Lightfoot added: “I ran, I’m here to solve big problems and I’m not gonna shy away from them. We have to be committed to … taking on the needs of our city. And having a rational, long-term capital plan is a critical part of who we must be.”

Lightfoot says she also believes “government can actually be a stimulus” at a time of unprecedented economic hardship.

“If we are actually committed to a long-term capital infrastructure plan, that means we’re creating jobs and jobs is something that we all desperately need,” she said.

Yet another source of controversy is the mayor’s plan to increase the “buying power” of the aldermanic menu program — from $1.32 million-a-year for each of the 50 aldermen to $1.5 million — by taking projects off their plate.

In return, she wants aldermen already reeling from her elimination of aldermanic prerogative to relinquish control over the selection of projects, turning it over to the Chicago Department of Transportation.

That will undoubtedly please Inspector General Joe Ferguson, who’s sought menu reforms for years. But it’s a non-starter with mayoral allies and critics alike.

“Our communities depend on us — not a bureaucrat, but us. Their elected officials. I can’t buy something I cannot deliver,” Health and Environmental Protection Committee Chairman George Cardenas (12th) has said.

“We ought to get the extra buying power. But as far as giving up control, I don’t think that’s in the cards. Our constituents depend on the fact that, when they talk to the alderman, some things are gonna get done. We need to speak with certainty — not hypotheticals.”

Among the highlights of the first two years of projects:

• Aldermanic menu program: $216 million over two years; the yearly menu budget increases from $1.32 million to $1.5 million per ward.

• Bridges and viaducts: $164.3 million to complete funding for 23 bridge replacement projects; $66.2 million for 37 bridge repair projects; $16.9 million to rehabilitate 13 underpasses; and $7.5 million to begin the process of improving vertical clearance at 5 viaducts.

• Streets and alleys: $250.4 million for residential and arterial street resurfacing. Also funds one “green alley” in each ward every year.

• Street lighting: $112.3 million for the complete replacement of 300 blocks of lighting infrastructure, along with targeted light pole replacements and wiring repairs.

• Traffic signals: $28.4 million to modernize Chicago’s traffic signal system.

• Sidewalks and pedestrian rights-of-way: $112.2 million for sidewalk repair.

• Complete streets: $49.0 million for improvements to bike lanes, priority bus routes, pavement markings and Vision Zero pedestrian safety projects; $104.2 million toward funding 24 streetscape projects, including those in Invest South/West Corridors; $6 million for planting 12,000 trees.

• Waterways: $12.3 million to rebuild one mile of lakeshore encompassing Morgan Shoal and expand the Calumet River Dredging Facility to ensure clean waterways for commerce on the Calumet River.

• Facilities: $132.5 million for renovations and system upgrades to public facilities such as Department of Family and Supportive Service centers, Chicago Department of Public Health locations, Chicago Public Library locations. Also includes environmental remediation of city-owned land and demolition of hazardous buildings.

• Equipment: $162.1 million for the Chicago’s vehicle fleet, equipment, and IT systems.

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