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Infrastructure Trust launches plan to overhaul Chicago’s outdoor lights

Chicago’s 348,500 outdoor lights along the lakefront and in streets, alleys, viaducts and pathways could be transformed to LED technology to cut utility costs, improve public safety and even generate sorely needed revenue.

On Thursday, Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s newly revamped Infrastructure Trust issued a “Request for Information,” seeking companies interested in completing the so-called “smart lighting” project.

The goal is to bankroll the cost of the massive lighting project, expected to begin in 2016 and last several years, at no cost to Chicago taxpayers with savings generated by the new LED technology.

Since LED lights would replace an outdated infrastructure that has higher built-in energy costs, the overhaul is expected to save enough money to cover conversion costs and still give investors an attractive enough return on their money.

For Chicago taxpayers, there are several potential benefits to revamping what is a “core element” of the city’s infrastructure, according to City Treasurer Kurt Summers, newly appointed chairman of the revamped Infrastructure Trust.

<small><strong>City Treasurer Kurt Summers also serves as chairman of the Infrastructure Trust. | Sun-Times file photo</strong></small>
City Treasurer Kurt Summers also serves as chairman of the Infrastructure Trust. | Sun-Times file photo

“We have an opportunity to make sure we have the best, most efficient technology, but it’s also a public safety issue. We want to make sure our streets and our neighborhoods are lit. The more light there is in neighborhoods and the fewer lights there are down or malfunctioning, the less likely it is [bad] things will happen in the dark,” Summers said.

“Right now, we don’t know when lights are down. They have to be manually tested, manually reported and figured out. Most of the grid is not energy-efficient. There is a tremendous opportunity for energy savings. There’s a great opportunity to have smarter technology, which means not only would we know when a light is down, but what it needs to be replaced and how long” repairs will take.

Earlier this year, four powerful aldermen called for City Council hearings on the use of city buildings, light poles and high-speed fiber-optic lines to support a wireless Internet network, citing the potential to raise millions for cash-strapped Chicago.

On Thursday, Summers acknowledged the revenue and “Internet connectivity” potential behind the lighting overhaul.

“Technology allows for smart communities that provide information about where crime has occurred and to relay relevant information to first responders,” he said.

“The more we’re focused on new technology and creative solutions, the more likely it will be that this project will not only have a strong infrastructure impact, but a public safety impact and an impact on how livable communities are. Wireless on poles. Cellular. Charging stations. There are a number of different options. These are all inferences based on early intelligence. There are definitely some revenue opportunities that will help us finance this.”

If the formula works, it will go a long way toward not only re-lighting Chicago but jump-starting Emanuel’s newly revamped Infrastructure Trust.

Chicago has roughly 348,500 outdoor lights, all of them maintained by the city and Chicago Park District. That won’t change, even after the multi-year project is completed.

“This will be a flagship project for our new team,” Summers said.

In 2012, Emanuel persuaded a reluctant City Council to approve an Infrastructure Trust billed as a revolutionary change that would allow private investors to pump $1.7 billion into “transformative” infrastructure projects the city could not afford to build on its own.

Instead, the Trust has been more like a bust.

It finally got off the ground with a program known as “Retrofit One” to reduce energy consumption at city assets and by helping to bring 4G mobile data service to the CTA’s subway system later this year.

But that’s about it. And neither of those projects can be classified as “transformative.”

Two months ago, Emanuel hit the re-set button in hopes of delivering on his lofty promise.

The overhaul comes as the city’s crushing debt and junk bond rating has driven up the cost of city borrowing, making the Trust all the more important as a vehicle to fund infrastructure projects.

First Deputy Corporation Counsel Leslie Darling, who made a career out of testifying before the City Council’s Finance Committee on multimillion-dollar settlements stemming from alleged police abuse, was named executive director of the Trust, replacing Stephen Beitler.

Emanuel also expanded the five-member board into seven members and replaced all but one existing appointee: Chicago Federation of Labor President Jorge Ramirez.

Summers insisted then that the “right leadership team” was now in place to start delivering on a vision so bold, former President Bill Clinton joined Emanuel in making the announcement.

“Some of the challenge has been, there’s been such a big mandate and such a big vision. It can be overwhelming,” the treasurer said then.

“What we now need to do is re-focus on what matters and begin delivering results that people can see, touch and feel and see how it impacts their lives. And the more of that we do — quarter by quarter, year by year — the bigger the impact and the bigger the opportunities and the larger the projects are that we can take on. We have to build credibility.”

The lighting project is on a tight time frame. Responses to the city’s request for information are due back Nov. 16.