Council OKs plan to re-light Chicago streets

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The city wants to save money by replacing outdated streetlights with energy-efficient LED technology. | Sun-Times file photo

The City Council on Wednesday approved a $160 million program to re-light Chicago — but only after shining the light on Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s murky, pay-as-you-go financing plan.

Instead of using his much-ballyhooed-but-slow-starting Infrastructure Trust to attract private investors to bankroll the four-year conversion of Chicago’s 270,000 outdoor lights, the “smart lighting” program is being financed by Chicago taxpayers.

That means an as-yet-unexplained mix of general obligation bonds backed by property taxes, tax-increment-financing (TIF), operating funds or “other funding sources.”

Leslie Darling, executive director of the Infrastructure Trust, has given alternate explanations for the financing detour.

At first, she told the City Council’s Budget Committee that the city was “not interested in privatizing a critical public safety asset” such as street lights.

Then she acknowledged it would have been “a lot more expensive to use private financing,” because investors were demanding too great a return. That would have required “significant reductions to critical elements,” that the city was unwilling to make, she said.

Either way, the financing program can only be described as pay-as-you-go.

Chicago Department of Transportation Commissioner Rebekah Scheinfeld (right) is shown with Mayor Rahm Emanuel in the Logan Square neighborhood on a tour of the 606 Trail in 2015. | Sun-Times file photo

Chicago Department of Transportation Commissioner Rebekah Scheinfeld (right), shown with Mayor Rahm Emanuel on a tour of the 606 Trail, has faced questions over the financing of a new street lighting plan. | Sun-Times file photo

An estimated $10 million in annual energy savings will be “leveraged to pay for this capital investment,” reducing the cost to Chicago taxpayers, according to Transportation Commissioner Rebekah Scheinfeld.

“The remainder of the cost will come from the city’s general capital program. The Budget Department will be working on an ongoing basis to identify available TIF or bond proceeds, additional operating dollars or other funding sources that will go towards this each year,” Scheinfeld has said.

At last week’s Budget Committee meeting, that explanation was not enough to satisfy Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd), chairman of the City Council’s Progressive Caucus.

“I’m finding it hard to believe that we sat there with all of these people in the Infrastructure Trust and no one can give us a specific breakdown of TIF, bonded out dollars and other resources that are specifically going to be pegged to this contract for the next four or five years so that we know how to budget for it and it’s not sort of, let’s play it by ear and see what happens next year depending on, either the savings or how many light fixtures we put up,” Waguespack said.

“When you do a $160 million contract, there’s got to be a breakdown somewhere more specifically of how much out of TIF, which TIF is it coming from, and how much generally are we talking about bonding out. Is it $5 million out of TIF, $10 million out of bonds.”

The project includes a $150 million contract with Ameresco and a $10 million contract with a yet-to-be-identified construction manager.

Ald. Scott Waguespack isn’t happy about a plan to borrow even more money to keep CPS schools open through the end of the school year. | Sun-Times file photo

Ald. Scott Waguespack wanted to know more about where the money for the street lighting program would come from. | Sun-Times file photo

Roughly $87.2 million will be spent on brighter LED lights, with the installation beginning this summer in South and West Side neighborhoods where violent crime is highest.

The new lights will also be likely to change the overhead look of Chicago. LED lights are whiter than the yellow lights air travelers now see when flying into or out of O’Hare and Midway Airports.

Another $37.2 million will be spent to replace selected poles and wiring.

It also includes $30 million for a “management system” allowing city workers to monitor and control lighting levels from a central location; it also will alert the city when lights go out, shortening the time between outages.

“Right now, we don’t know if a light is out unless someone sees it,” Scheinfeld has said.

Despite the concerns about financing, Ald. Michael Scott (24th) was all for the idea of shining a brighter light on Chicago streets.

“Lawndale and Englewood — these high-crime areas. Being able to go in there first and make sure that light is bright. People are safer,” he said.

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