Chicago’s economy depends on investments in the city’s roads, mass transit system, rail and airports, Mayor Rahm Emanuel said Thursday at a River North panel discussion.
Transit projects create jobs and when the city has top-notch highway networks, airports and public transit systems, more businesses and their workers are likely to call Chicago home, the mayor and others say.
“Our economy’s well-being . . . really depends on whether the federal government is going to get its act going and make the investment so we can grow as an economy [at] the capacity we really are capable of, and can achieve,” Emanuel said.
Emanuel joined former U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and Ed Rendell, former Pennsylvania governor, in a University of Chicago Institute of Politics discussion about infrastructure needs. The talk came at a crucial time in America when it comes to transportation funding. The country’s Highway Trust Fund, which pays for about 45 percent of bridge and road infrastructure in the country, is set to run out in the fall.
LaHood, who resigned in 2013, is now co-chair of Building America’s Future — a bipartisan coalition dedicated to improving the nation’s infrastructure — along with Rendell. He told a crowd of nearly 100 at Google’s headquarters that there’s not a lot of good news when it comes to funding for the country’s massive infrastructure need. But he believes investment in infrastructure will lead to more jobs and involvement in major cities.
“Really bolstering and boosting and increasing funds for infrastructure, that’s the way you attract young people, and that’s the way you attract business,” LaHood said. “America is in a mess. We are so far behind. We will continue to be . . . behind unless we make these investments. We need the people to get fired up and to send a message. We need a transportation bill that has vision.”
LaHood suggested Congress increase the gas tax to have a “pot of money.” He said without it, “we are sunk.”
The gas tax that supports the country’s Highway Trust Fund hasn’t been raised since 1993. It leaves a nearly $20 billion gap for the country’s federal highway and mass transit spending.
Despite some dire predictions, LaHood said he believes Congress will “slop some money” from the general Highway Trust Fund before money is set to run out and “come next January, then maybe hope springs eternally.”
Whatever is done, Emanuel said the city needs a large emphasis on mass transit when it comes to infrastructure spending.
“I would say your growth and your economy are in sync. The highway bill was built when we were building in the subways. Mass transit needs to be a critical component of any new infrastructure because the population growth in America is coming back to cities, and to do what you need to do there has to be recalibration of roads and mass transit,” Emanuel said.
He also cited some key Chicago projects that are not entirely dependent on federal funding, including an umbrella facility at O’Hare International Airport for car rentals and the CTA Red Line 95th Street station reconstruction. Those projects include Transportation Infrastructure Finance Innovation Act or TIFIA loans, a federal credit program that provides direct loans, loan guarantees and standby lines of credit to finance infrastructure projects across the country.