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Lightfoot defends $3.7 billion capital plan — even without new funding source

“We have not had a logical way of funding infrastructure for the long-term. Our bridges, our tunnels, our roads are crumbling. We’ve got to address these issues. We’ve got to take matters into our own hands,” the mayor said.

Chicago skyline, seen from 31st Street Bridge over Lake Shore Drive in July 2020.
The view from the 31st Street bridge over Lake Shore Drive.
Sun-Times file

Chicago “can’t afford not to” have a $3.7 billion capital plan, Mayor Lori Lightfoot said Thursday, sloughing off questions about how the city can pile even more borrowing onto its mountain of debt without a “new funding source.”

“We have not had a logical way of funding infrastructure for the long-term. Our bridges, our tunnels, our roads are crumbling. We’ve got to address these issues. We’ve got to take matters into our own hands,” the mayor said.

“We’re not getting saved by somebody else — some other governmental entity. We’ve got to have rationality in the way that we make priorities on the various infrastructure changes that are needed.”

Aldermen were told this week that 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 told the Sun-Times this week.

“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.”

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

“We can’t afford not to. … 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 service lines. That can’s been kicked down the road so many times, it’s unrecognizable,” she said.

Pounding the podium for emphasis, Lightfoot said, “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 $1.8 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.

“Our communities depend on us — not a bureaucrat, but us. Their elected officials. I can’t buy something I cannot deliver,” Health and Environmental Protection Committee Chairman George Cardenas (12th) has said.

“We ought to get the extra buying power. But as far as giving up control, I don’t think that’s in the cards. Our constituents depend on the fact that, when they talk to the alderman, some things are gonna get done. We need to speak with certainty—not hypotheticals.”