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Ferguson urges Lightfoot to yank residential street resurfacing from $66 million-a-year aldermanic menu program

The city’s inspector general says city transportation department needs “full authority to coordinate construction impacting the public way.”

Inspector General Joe Ferguson wants to close a loophole that allows the Chicago Public Schools to hire companies City Hall or sister agencies have banned from getting government business.
Inspector General Joe Ferguson says Chicago needs a more coordinated, citywide approach street resurfacing.
Rich Hein/Chicago Sun-Times

Mayor Lori Lightfoot was urged Tuesday to run with a political football that Rahm Emanuel punted — by yanking “core residential street resurfacing planning” out of the aldermanic menu program and turning it over to the Chicago Department of Transportation.

In a follow-up audit on CDOT’s management of the public way, Inspector General Joe Ferguson argued that a “holistic approach to core infrastructure” would help the city “realize significant savings for its taxpayers and the infrastructure they depend on.”

“Providing CDOT full authority to coordinate construction impacting the public way is a best practice that would substantially improve governance,” Ferguson wrote.

“CDOT’s management of this function illustrates the corrosive impact of small-bore, institutional politics, manifest here in the reluctance of a major infrastructure department to assume full responsibility for core residential street infrastructure planning because it touches upon a discretionary conferral of an administrative aldermen prerogative: the aldermanic menu program.”

The inspector general argued that the city is “taking a penny-wise, pound-foolish approach” by “withholding enforcement resources” that CDOT needs to inspect the public way.

Ferguson also urged CDOT to demand “full five-year capital improvement plans from all stakeholder agencies to maximize opportunities to coordinate projects” and minimize a motorists pet peeve: tearing up Chicago streets only to do it again a few years or even a few months later.

“CDOT is managing a citywide initiative, but lacks the enterprise-wide authority needed to achieve best outcomes. This is a problem only the mayor can fix — either by giving CDOT the authority to require all relevant city departments and stakeholders to be full participants or to direct them to do so herself,” he said.

The mayor’s office said “ensuring equitable investment in our neighborhoods is a top priority” for the Lightfoot administration.

“To better meet the needs of all communities, we are currently taking a look at how all capital dollars—including those newly available from the state, as well as from existing funds — may be best spent going forward to address significant infrastructure needs and drive growth throughout the city,” the statement said.

“The findings of the OIG’s Audit will be incorporated into a broader discussion as we work to ensure all capital funding is program.”

Lightfoot’s executive order stripping aldermen of their sweeping authority over licensing and permitting in their wards — and her plan to do the same for aldermanic prerogative over zoning — already faces stiff resistance.

Two years ago, Ferguson hit Chicago aldermen where they live — in the $66 million-a-year menu program they cherish.

In an audit that sent shock waves through the City Council, Ferguson said the 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.”

He argued that decision-making authority should be stripped from aldermen and handed to CDOT’s professional engineers.

Ferguson also took aim at the city’s longstanding practices of allocating $66 million of that menu money in even amounts of $1.32 million to each of the 50 wards “without consideration of specific needs.”

That resulted in a $9.3 million disparity in funding between the best- and worst-funded wards” even though “no ward received adequate funding.”

Then-Transportation Committee Chairman Anthony Beale strongly opposed taking away from aldermen one of the few powers they have left.

“I don’t want someone from downtown telling me what streets and sidewalks and which curbs and gutters need to be done in my ward. I know my ward moreso than somebody sitting behind a desk downtown,” Beale said then.

Then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel responded by saying that following Ferguson’s recommendation would be like declaring war on a City Council that had walked the tax plank twice to solve Chicago’s $30 billion pension crisis and whose support the mayor needed going forward.

“Everybody who’s never actually worked in government said, ‘Let’s get rid … of earmarks. And ever since you got rid of earmarks, Congress has become totally, 100 percent dysfunctional,” Emanuel, who served as former President Barack Obama’s first White House chief of staff, said then.

“If you sit around and walk around with a glass of white wine, you can say, ‘This is what the perfect world is.’ “