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Lightfoot preparing multibillion-dollar capital spending plan

Top mayoral aides will start briefing aldermen Tuesday on the mayor’s plan to confront a capital funding shortage that’s been building for years. “Government has always led the charge in investing and putting people to work,” said Ald. Gilbert Villegas. “This is no different.”

Bridges over the Chicago River on Aug. 9, 2020.
Bridge maintenance and repair is just one of the areas that could be addressed by a new capital spending plan. Chicago has more than 300 bridges. At least 40 are “bascule” style drawbridges with an average age of 83.
Sun-Times file

Mayor Lori Lightfoot is putting the final touches on a multibillion-dollar capital plan that will help aldermen stretch their $1.32 million allotment of “menu money” and put their constituents to work.

Ald. Gilbert Villegas (36th), the mayor’s City Council floor leader, said top mayoral aides will start briefing aldermen Tuesday on the mayor’s plan to confront a capital funding shortage that’s been building for years.

“This is a job creator. Any time there’s a tough time, there’s a capital bill that gets proposed in order to put people to work. Government has always led the charge in investing and putting people to work,” he said.

Over the years, capital plans have been more like political documents. With no overall needs assessment, projects have landed on the city’s list because they were the mayor’s favorites. That won’t be the case going forward, Villegas said.

“This is gonna be more interaction, more collaboration with the departments. Taking a look at assessments, road conditions. Projects that have just been shelved because the department didn’t have funding for it,” he said.

Kristen Cabanan, a spokesperson for the city’s Office of Budget and Management, refused to reveal specifics of the capital plan, nor would she identify a specific funding source.

In a statement, she said only that “strong public infrastructure is critical to a safe and equitable Chicago” and Lightfoot is “committed to developing a comprehensive, needs-based capital plan that protects our infrastructure, revitalizes communities and creates jobs. ... The City of Chicago routinely issues bonds to support our annual capital program. We are working closely with City Council members, community leaders and other key stakeholders to solicit feedback on our city’s capital needs and priorities.”

In August, top mayoral aides laid the political groundwork for a massive capital plan.

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

An estimated 265 of the city’s 375 “core” buildings need “substantial renovation or equipment replacement immediately,” officials said then.

The same goes for the city’s fleet of 6,500 vehicles, including 3,000 police vehicles, 668 fire engines, trucks, ambulances and SUV’s and 1,600 Streets and Sanitation vehicles.

The city needs to spend $95 million a year to get the fleet on a normal replacement cycle. But it has spent only $35 million in each of the last five years.

Residential street resurfacing needs “catch-up,” aldermen were told. But, bridges, viaducts and underpasses were described as the city’s “greatest need” and “most under-funded” category of infrastructure.

Chicago has more than 300 bridges. At least 40 are “bascule” style drawbridges with an average age of 83.

Earlier this year, the City Council authorized a bare-bones, $100 million capital plan bankrolled by an existing line of credit with the promise of a larger general obligation bond issue later this year.

At the time, Chief Financial Officer Jennie Huang Bennett pledged to work with aldermen to devise a long-term capital plan to ensure “equity of investments” across the city after a “needs-based” infrastructure assessment.

“The best capital plans out there by cities ... look at what the needs are, build a plan for how you fund them, and then, you follow that plan,” Bennett said on that day.

“We do have a limited set of resources. But especially in this time post-COVID, the government has a role to play in helping to support the economic recovery as well as investing in Chicago’s future. So, it’s a conversation that is very important for us to have. It’s not gonna be easy, but we look forward to having that conversation.”

Aldermen have long complained their menu money has been frozen at $1.32 million while rising costs and the city’s retreat from street resurfacing and pothole patching has reduced the value of that annual allotment.

With a multibillion-dollar capital bill, those complaints will finally be answered, Villegas said.

“You have a lot of things — sidewalks, for example — that we have to pay for. Water Management will only pave half a street. We have to pay for the other half of the street out of menu. There’ll be projects related to ADA, green alleys, lighting,” the alderman said.

“These are all functions that have historically come out of the city’s budget. But over the years, they started to shift more and more back to us being spent out of menu. Which in turn, didn’t allow for aldermen to do a better job repaving the inner streets. If you did ten blocks of Grand Avenue, there goes your menu money for the whole year.”