Unveiling a plan for “Building a New Chicago,” Mayor Rahm Emanuel on Thursday promoted a package of infrastructure initiatives that included very little that was new — except for its $7 billion price tag and its ambitious framing as a mission comparable to the city’s rebuilding after the Great Chicago Fire.
Emanuel told a crowd of labor leaders, aldermen and top aides that his plan would set “the foundations for Chicago to be a leader in the global revolution of ideas and innovation” in the 21st century.
Aldermen said Emanuel’s speech at the Chicagoland Laborers’ Training and Apprentice Center on the West Side was aimed at convincing businesses of his commitment to boost the local economy through new work on roads, transit and public buildings, and also to persuade the City Council to pass his plan for a privately funded Infrastructure Trust to finance major projects.
“The Chicago Infrastructure Trust provides us with the breakout strategy we need to make the investments we need so we can take control of our destiny,” Emanuel said.
The trust’s concept of a public-private partnership has raised the suspicions of some Chicagoans who remain upset over the 2008 lease of the city’s parking meters, which was one of the most unpopular initiatives of Mayor Richard Daley’s later years as mayor.
Emanuel, in office for 10 months, acknowledged the sensitivity of the issue by saying the city will keep control of its assets despite private investment. “Already, five leaders in infrastructure finance have expressed interest in investing in Chicago’s publicly owned properties — that will stay Chicago’s publicly owned properties,” he said.
The trust would pull together private and public financing for a variety of projects, such as bus rapid-transit service or expanded high-speed Internet access. The deals would in many cases resemble rent-to-own plans. Private firms would build new projects or replace, expand or upgrade existing ones that the city can’t afford to tackle. The city would then pay the private investor until the terms of the deal were fulfilled.
Just $225 million of the $7 billion Emanuel outlined would come from the trust, for energy efficiency retrofitting on city buildings. But Emanuel made clear that his vision of the Infrastructure Trust is a key part of “Building a New Chicago.”
Another controversial aspect of Emanuel’s message Thursday was his push for further expansion at O’Hare International Airport. Emanuel called on “airlines to begin planning with us today, so we can add a fourth and final (new) runway.” But airlines greeted that prospect without enthusiasm.
Almost all of the other initiatives in Emanuel’s speech, from road resurfacing to rehabbing the city’s water system, have been previously unveiled, some by Daley before he retired from City Hall last year. Emanuel emphasized that no new taxes will be used to pay for his infrastructure plan. Among the means to finance his building plan will be cuts in the city’s bureaucracy and the imposition of user fees, he said.
Ald. Richard Mell, 33rd, said Emanuel’s speech, with its calls to help forge a new identity for Chicago, was in part aimed at aldermen who might be reluctant to vote for the Infrastructure Trust. “It was a State of the Union speech in Chicago,” Mell said as he and several other City Council power brokers left the union hall. “I think it was a good blueprint for Chicago’s future.”
And Ald. Patrick O’Connor, 40th, Emanuel’s City Council floor leader, said the mayor was wooing business owners with talk of a long-term commitment to infrastructure improvements.
“I think this speech was aimed toward Chicagoans in general, and aimed toward business, because actually, these types of pronouncements are out there to encourage businesses to say, ‘I’m thinking of coming to Chicago, I want to open a place in Chicago, I want to do business in or with Chicago,'” O’Connor said. “These are all speeches geared toward making us an attractive option in a very global economy.”
But Emanuel’s pitch for O’Hare expansion, a proposal dear to many business leaders, will be a tough sell for the struggling airlines.
Chicago-based United Airlines and its main O’Hare competitor, American Airlines, which is in Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, are both against spending money on expanding O’Hare until more flight capacity is needed.
“We will continue to work with the city on demand-driven projects,” United said in response to Emanuel’s request to help Chicago finish the O’Hare project, which started in 2005 and was originally slated for completion in 2012.
American is “completely focused on our restructuring, and we have limited ability to make commitments going forward,” the Fort Worth, Texas-based airline said in a statement. “We are very willing to listen to the city and engage in conversation, but our immediate focus is on coming out of restructuring a strong and vigorous competitor in the Chicago market.”