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Lightfoot administration outlines 5-year, $3.7 billion plan to repair, maintain roads, bridges, other city assets

The massive borrowing would be bankrolled by a mix of tax-increment-financing, a bond issue backed by property and/or sales taxes and “interim financing and cash-flow management” in anticipation of state and federal funding.

City crews resurfacing North Clybourn Avenue in 2012.
City crews resurfacing North Clybourn Avenue in 2012.
Sun-Times Media

Top mayoral aides on Tuesday unveiled a five-year, $3.7 billion capital program amid concern about the city’s ability to finance still more massive borrowing and Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s demand that aldermen relinquish at least some control over their treasured menu program in exchange for increased “buying power.”

In virtual briefings conspicuously timed for Election Day, aldermen were told the massive borrowing 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’s not good enough to satisfy Civic Federation President Laurence Msall. Not when Lightfoot’s “pandemic” budget already includes a $1.7 billion debt restructuring and refinancing with nearly $949 million of the savings claimed in the first two years. Critics have called it “scoop-and-toss on steroids.”

“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 said.

“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.”

Ald. Ray Lopez (15th) “understands the need” to repair and replace Chicago’s “aging infrastructure,” especially in long-neglected South and West Side neighborhoods.

But, without a “solid funding source,” the mayor’s plan is more about “hopes and dreams” of attracting a future federal bailout.

“We’re gonna use the voodoo economics of [tax increment financing] and bonds to try to get through this. If that doesn’t work out, we’re gonna ask Chicago taxpayers to shoulder even more debt at a time when they can barely afford the government that’s already in debt now,” Lopez said.

“They don’t have a committed funding source from start to finish. … We’re just gonna make this up as we go along. That has never worked out well for Chicago taxpayers. While this is a decent road map on the project side, if the funding isn’t there from the onset, this could very well end up being just another plan ... collecting dust on a shelf.”

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 $1.8 million — by taking projects off their plate.

In return, the Chicago Department of Transportation would assume “greater responsibility for selecting work/projects” and aldermen would have less control.

The proposed changes — including “stricter timelines for aldermanic selection of infrastructure projects” — went over like a lead balloon.

Aldermen already are pushing back against Lightfoot’s executive order stripping them control over licensing and permitting.

They’re determined to preserve aldermanic prerogative over zoning, and the last thing they want is to relinquish even more control.

“This is another way of trying to take away aldermanic prerogative. Take away control of our menus. This is another huge power grab by the administration,” said former Transportation Committee Chairman Anthony Beale (9th).

Beale accused the mayor of “throwing a carrot out — making aldermen think that they’re gonna get more than they’re entitled to — while at the same time taking away their control.”

Ald. Jason Ervin (28th), chairman of the City Council’s Black Caucus, said he, too, is concerned about “taking the say out of the community.”

“The community has to have a voice. They do that through their elected official. Any changes where the scales are being tilted away from community participation is always a concern to me,” he said.

Opposition to the menu changes extended to some of Lightfoot’s closest allies.

“They can say that 15th Place hasn’t been worked on for 25 years and we need to get this done above 15th Street. However, I know and they probably don’t know that everybody lives on 15th Street — not on 15th Place. And 15th Place has a whole bunch of vacant lots,” said Ald. Michael Scott Jr. (24th), Lightfoot’s handpicked chairman of the City Council’s Education Committee.

“If they supercede my warning and information about what needs to happen in my ward, then I can’t be supportive of that. … I’m not in favor of them removing us from that equation.”

Health and Environmental Protection Committee Chairman George Cardenas (12th) said Lightfoot’s executive order has already diminished “what we, as aldermen, have a say-so on.” He’s not willing to relinquish any more power.

“Our communities depend on us with certainty — not a bureaucrat, but us. Their elected officials. I can’t buy something I cannot deliver,” Cardenas said.

Chicago needs $4.4 billion over the next five years to put streets, bridges, buildings and vehicles on a maintenance-and-replacement cycle, but has funding for only $1.7 billion.

The mayor’s plan would eliminate that backlog by spending $617 million the first year and $3.7 billion over five years. Among the big-ticket items: $759.3 million for bridge repair and replacement, $622.4 million for street resurfacing; and $414.2 million for projects concerning “safety, mobility and economic development” in the public way, an amount that includes $37 million for bike improvement and $25 million for priority bus routes and station improvements.

Details of how the $3.7 billion would be spent over five years under a capital plan outlined to Chicago aldermen on Tuesday.
Details of how the $3.7 billion would be spent over five years under a capital plan outlined to Chicago aldermen on Tuesday.
Provided

Three years ago, Inspector General Joe Ferguson concluded the aldermanic menu program was under-funded by $122.9 million-a-year, “bears no relationship to the actual infrastructure needs” of each ward and includes significant “funding disparities.”

Ferguson also took aim at the city’s long-standing practice of allocating menu money in even amounts of $1.32 million to each of the 50 wards “without consideration of specific needs.”

Then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel ignored the advice.

Last year, Ferguson urged Lightfoot to run with a political football Emanuel punted — by yanking “core residential street resurfacing planning” out of the aldermanic menu program and turning it over to the city’s Department of Transportation.

Ferguson argued then that a “holistic approach to core infrastructure” would help the city “realize significant savings for its taxpayers and infrastructure they depend on.”

The mayor’s office responded in a way that telegraphed the changes proposed Tuesday, issuing a statement then that declared: “Ensuring equitable investment in our neighborhoods is a top priority.”