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$8B to $10B plan to replace lead service lines being rolled out ‘in the coming weeks’

City officials refused to say how the multi-year program would be financed, how long it might take to eliminate the risk to Chicago’s drinking water — or if homeowners would be asked to share the cost of replacing their service lines.

Chicago Department of Water Management employees at a water main break on the Northwest Side in January 2019.
Chicago Department of Water Management employees at a water main break in January 2019. The city is close to unveiling details of their plan to replace lead service lines carrying water from the mains into homes.
Sun-Times file

Mayor Lori Lightfoot is putting the final touches on an $8-billion-to-$10-billion plan to replace lead service lines carrying water from street mains to roughly 360,000 Chicago homes, top mayoral aides said Tuesday.

Water Management Commissioner Randy Conner and Budget Director Susie Park refused to say how the massive, multi-year replacement program would be financed or how long it might take to eliminate the risk to Chicago’s drinking water.

Nor would they say if homeowners would be asked to share the cost of replacing their lead service lines — and, if so, at what level.

Conner said only that top mayoral aides have scoured the country for examples of how other cities have replaced their lead service pipes and the city’s program would be informed by other municipalities’ successes and mistakes.

“There’s a few ideas that are out there, but we want to make sure they’re totally packaged correctly to make sure we get the biggest bang for our buck and how to present it to our constituents,” Conner told a virtual meeting of the City Council’s Committee on Economic and Capital Development.

Water Management spokeswoman Megan Vidis confirmed the city would announce “in the coming weeks” a program for “lead service line replacement” that would be “strictly voluntary.” Details on funding won’t be made public until then, Vidis said.

Conner provided a cost estimate only under pressure from committee chairman Ald. Gilbert Villegas (36th). Villegas noted that Philadelphia, New York and Fort Wayne, Ind. have “insurance programs” where homeowners share the cost.

“If I had to do it on the back of an envelope, chairman, it would probably be somewhere between $8 billion and $10 billion for … Chicago. And that’s today. Not doing a deep dive. Just looking at the surface and understanding what’s under the ground in the city of Chicago. That includes part of restoration,” Conner said.

“No funding source is off the table. We’re looking for money everywhere. We’re checking the couches for all the quarters and the nickels to make sure this program is funded.”

At a time when the stay-at-home shutdown triggered by the coronavirus has blown a $700 million hole in Lightfoot’s budget, Park said the city is looking at a “multitude of funding sources.” The city has “a little bit set aside for a pilot” program — but only $5 million, she said.

“Obviously, at that dollar amount, it will take us all to get to that level. And we absolutely do need federal and state assistance for this program,” Park said.

No city in America has more lead service lines than Chicago, and they desperately need to be replaced. The cost can range from $3,000 to $10,000 for each impacted property. Restoration and labor costs compound the price tag.

As a mayoral candidate, Lightfoot accused Mayor Rahm Emanuel of engaging in a “cover-up” of what she called a major public health issue.

She argued then that concerned homeowners couldn’t wait for results of a $750,000 study to determine the cost of and potential funding for a plan to replace lead service lines.

“Whatever it takes, this administration has a moral obligation to make this right,” she said then.

Two months after taking office, Lightfoot insisted Chicago’s drinking water was safe. But she also paused meter installation citywide after another round of water tests at metered homes showed more elevated lead levels.

On Tuesday, Vidis, the water department spokeswoman, said “Chicago’s drinking water is in compliance with all federal and state standards for safety.”

During the campaign, mayoral challengers Paul Vallas and Ja’Mal Green warned Chicago could face a water crisis akin to the one in Flint, Michigan unless the city halted main-line construction and started a cost-sharing plan to replace lead service lines.

Both candidates proposed expediting distribution of water testing kits and supplying water filtration systems in the short-term— at a cost of up to $15 million.

For replacing lead pipes, Green suggested giving homeowners a choice. They could pick their own contractor and assume the entire cost. Or let the city do the work and share the cost. Property owners would have paid their share over five to 10 years, through an additional fee added to their property tax bill.

For low-income homeowners, Green wanted a “Lead Be Gone Assistance Fund” that would accept private donations and draw revenue from the city’s $205 million vehicle tax fund.

Vallas would have bankrolled lead service line replacement with a Neighborhood Conservation Fund that provided grants, low-interest loans and partial subsidies, depending on income levels.

Seed money would have come from excess TIF dollars, developer fees and by asking the state to “stop diverting corporate personal property tax replacement dollars.”