Street paving, bridge repair, building maintenance: city infrastructure spending to focus on worst areas first, mayor says

Mayor Lori Lightfoot unveiled her plan at Dawes Park in Auburn Gresham, where a city crew was resurfacing a nearby stretch of Damen Avenue.

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City workers repave Damen Avenue in West Englewood on Monday, April 26, 2021.

City workers repave Damen Avenue in West Englewood on Monday. Farther south along Damen, in Dawes Park, Mayor Lori Lightfoot was discussing her multi-billion-dollar capital spending plan, which includes $250.4 million for street resurfacing over the next two years.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Mayor Lori Lightfoot famously warned African American aldermen who dared to vote against her 2021 budget, “Don’t ask me for s---t for the next three years” when it comes to choosing projects for her five-year, $3.7 billion capital plan.

Ald. Jeanette Taylor (20th) was so furious, she said it proved Lightfoot was “no better than Daley or Rahm.”

On Monday, that mayoral threat preceding the closest budget vote Chicago has seen since Council Wars was all but forgotten at a feel-good press conference launching the five-year capital plan at the start of the 2021 paving season.

There was no more talk about punishing recalcitrant aldermen. Instead, Lightfoot highlighted her “data-driven, needs-based” approach to improving “neglected” infrastructure on a “worst-first” basis.

“We do that by meeting our residents where they are, listening intently to their concerns and working alongside them to deliver exactly what they need,” she said.

“Our residents across our city have been asking for more streets and sidewalks to be paved, more of their streets and traffic lights to work properly and for their neighborhoods to look more attractive.”

To emphasize the all-important “equity” component, Lightfoot chose an arterial street resurfacing project at 81st Street and Damen Avenue in Auburn Gresham as the backdrop for Monday’s announcement in Dawes Park.

It’s among 75 miles of arterial streets to be resurfaced this year, double Chicago’s annual average. Roughly 1,240 blocks of residential streets are slated for resurfacing, 500 blocks more than normal.

The City Council OK’d a $1.4 billion general obligation bond issue to fund the first two years of the capital plan, with $600 million of that spent in the first year.

“Chicago Works is a result of our city taking our own initiative, putting our own destiny into our own hands and leading the way in the recovery,” Lightfoot said.

“We didn’t wait for the state or the federal government to fund us. We did this ourselves.”

Mayor Lori Lightfoot discusses the Chicago Works program designed to revitalize the city’s streets and alleys and the jobs it will bring at a news conference last April.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot discussed details of the Chicago Works program on Monday at Dawes Park, 8052 S. Damen Ave.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times file

No wonder Lightfoot was able to use the capital plan to get her $12.8 billion budget passed; it’s the biggest in Chicago history.

Projects include everything from road and bridge repairs, police cars, fire trucks and snow plows to long-deferred maintenance on libraries, fire houses and health centers. There’s even enough money for streetscapes, lighting, sidewalks and bikeways as well as traffic safety improvements and public art.

“When capital comes from the state or from the feds, they’re usually larger projects. … Very rarely or ever will you have ... replacement of a roof or sidewalk repair or repaving a street that hasn’t been re-paved in years,” said Ald. Gilbert Villegas (36th), chairman of the City Council’s Economic and Capital Development Committee.

“That’s what this capital plan does. It goes down deep to address that deferred maintenance that we’ve been dealing with for all of these years and really put people to work,” Villegas added.

“We want to make sure that people from Chicago are participating on these projects. We want to make sure that minority-, women- and veteran-owned businesses are participating — not at the sub-level, but at the prime level. … This City Council has challenged the administration and we partnered together to make sure that we send a message out to the construction industry that we want to see people that look like us — Black and Brown communities — participating on these projects.”

Transportation Commissioner Gia Biagi said the $3.7 billion capital plan sets the stage for a “legacy of investments in our critical transportation infrastructure,” especially in neighborhoods historically “challenged by mobility and economic hardships.”

“These improvements prioritize making it as easy as possible to get around the city as sustainably and affordably as possible. We want to encourage folks to walk, to bike, to take public transit. The investment in the infrastructure makes that happen,” Biagi said.

“I want to especially thank the mayor for the dedicated funding to Vision Zero to make our street and public way safe for everyone. That is no small thing. We have never had dedicated funding for that program in the city and, today we have it. We have over $40 million teed up for investments in traffic-calming and public safety projects in bike lane infrastructure, priority bus routes and more.”

As always with city construction contracts valued at more than $100,000, at least half the jobs must be performed by Chicago residents.

At last week’s City Council meeting, former Black Caucus Chairman Roderick Sawyer (6th) introduced an ordinance to narrow that residency requirement. Instead of just any Chicago residents, he wants half the jobs to go to residents of areas that are “socio-economically disadvantaged.”

Last fall, aldermen were told the largest capital plan in Chicago history 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 wasn’t good enough to satisfy Civic Federation President Laurence Msall.

Not when Lightfoot’s “pandemic” budget already included a $1.7 billion debt restructuring and refinancing.

“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 told the Sun-Times.

“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,” Msall said at the time.

Lightfoot was asked then how the city could afford $3.7 billion in additional debt without a new, clearly identified funding source.

“We can’t afford not to,” she replied.

“The need is there. We have to figure out a way to move forward and not just say, `It’s too much. It’s too big.’ We got the same blowback when we said we’re gonna start the process [of replacing] lead [water] service lines. That can’s been kicked down the road so many times, it’s unrecognizable,” the mayor said on that day.

Pounding the podium for emphasis, Lightfoot added: “I ran, I’m here to solve big problems and I’m not gonna shy away from them. We have to be committed to … taking on the needs of our city. And having a rational, long-term capital plan is a critical part of who we must be.”

Lightfoot says she also believes “government can actually be a stimulus” at a time of unprecedented economic hardship.

“If we are actually committed to a long-term capital infrastructure plan, that means we’re creating jobs and jobs is something that we all desperately need,” she said.

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 $1.5 million — by taking projects off their plate.

In return, she wants aldermen already reeling from her elimination of aldermanic prerogative to relinquish control over the selection of projects, turning it over to the Chicago Department of Transportation.

That will undoubtedly please Inspector General Joe Ferguson, who’s sought menu reforms for years. But it’s a non-starter with mayoral allies and critics alike.

Among the highlights of the first two years of projects:

• Aldermanic menu program: $216 million over two years; the yearly menu budget in each ward increases to $1.5 million, up from $1.32 million.

• Bridges and viaducts: $164.3 million to complete funding for 23 bridge replacement projects; $66.2 million for 37 bridge repair projects; $16.9 million to rehabilitate 13 underpasses; and $7.5 million to begin improving vertical clearance at five viaducts.

• Streets and alleys: $250.4 million to resurface arterial and residential streets.

Construction workers repair and pave portions of South Damen Avenue in West Englewood Monday.

Construction workers repair and pave portions of South Damen Avenue in West Englewood Monday.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

• Street lighting: $112.3 million for complete replacement of 300 blocks of lighting infrastructure, along with targeted light pole replacements and wiring repairs.

• Traffic signals: $28.4 million to modernize Chicago’s traffic signal system.

• Sidewalks and pedestrian rights-of-way: $112.2 million for sidewalk repair.

• Complete streets: $49.0 million for improvements to bike lanes, priority bus routes, pavement markings and Vision Zero pedestrian safety projects; $104.2 million toward funding 24 streetscape projects, including those in Invest South/West Corridors; $6 million for planting 12,000 trees.

• Waterways: $12.3 million to rebuild one mile of lakeshore encompassing Morgan Shoal and expand the Calumet River Dredging Facility to ensure clean waterways for commerce on the Calumet River.

• Facilities: $132.5 million for renovations and system upgrades to public facilities such as Department of Family and Support Services centers, Chicago Department of Public Health locations, Chicago Public Library locations. Also includes environmental remediation of city-owned land and demolition of hazardous buildings.

• Equipment: $162.1 million for the city’s vehicle fleet, equipment, and information technology systems.

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