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Brown: Riverwalk is nice but price might be hard to explain

Took a stroll Tuesday along the new section of the downtown Riverwalk. Very nice.

The Riverwalk is going to be a huge attraction when finally completed, at least during the warm months.

At long last, the dream of the Chicago River being accessible to its residents and visitors is a reality.

I couldn’t help thinking, though, about all the people who are going to throw the Riverwalk in my face the next time I write about how the city is broke and needs to raise taxes.

OPINION

If the city is so broke, the argument will go, then how can it afford to build that Riverwalk?

Or how can it afford that new arena at McCormick Place for DePaul basketball?

Or somebody will say it’s no wonder the city is broke when it has to pay $62 million to settle a lawsuit for screwing up its deal to lease out the parking garages under Millennium Park and Grant Park.

Or it’s no wonder Chicago Public Schools are broke when their big money-saving scheme to privatize management of janitors fails to account for 22 entire schools — increasing the cost by $7 million a year.

Or they might say it’s no wonder property taxes are so high when the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District pays $44 million to settle a lawsuit resulting from a foolish fight over the use of the alley outside its Near North Side headquarters.

And those are just three of the foul-ups reported in the Chicago Sun-Times the last few days, although come to think of it, those hefty salaries they’re now paying at the newly privatized Navy Pier probably belong in this conversation as well.

People in government don’t look at those things the way regular people do. They know that such and such money comes out of this pot, while such and such money comes out of that pot, and you can’t spend the money from this pot on that pot.

They’d point out we’re building the Riverwalk with $99 million in “federal financing,” which actually is a 35-year loan with the first payments due this year and continuing through 2048.

City officials say the loan will be repaid with revenue from tour boat license agreements, concessions and leases of space along the Riverwalk and advertising revenue.

Just the same, federal officials wisely required the city to pledge its motor fuel tax money as backup security for the loan, given the speculative nature of the revenue from the project.

The loan is through the Transportation Infrastructure Finance Innovation Act, the most innovative element being the financing scheme itself.

The federal government won’t give the city a loan to help it through its pension crisis, and even if it did, that $99 million wouldn’t put a dent in the city’s pension debt, which is more like hundreds of millions a year.

The city isn’t really supposed to divert motor fuel taxes for purposes unrelated to transportation either, the Riverwalk tenuously qualifying as such, so that couldn’t be used for the pensions.

The Riverwalk is going to be Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s version of Millennium Park, hopefully without the cost overruns, although I had some difficulty Tuesday pinning down the overall projected cost.

Emanuel is correct about the importance to Chicago of always maintaining a vibrant city center that is an attractive place to live, work and visit.

The Riverwalk will help provide that.

We’ll have to hope Emanuel proves a better manager than his predecessor, Mayor Richard M. Daley, at crafting these sophisticated financing agreements.

Regular people don’t tend to know the fine points of where government money comes from and where it goes.

All they know is that their taxes keep going up, and they don’t like it when a guy like me says they are going to have to pay more.

And honestly, I look at some of this stuff and have trouble arguing the point — even an investment like the Riverwalk that I’m sure will soon be one of Chicago’s highlights.