Chicago’s Infrastructure Trust and Regional Planning

4.18.2011 | Chicago City Hall is voting today on Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s $1.7 billion “infrastructure trust.” The trust was announced with much fanfare in February and is presented as an innovative public-private venture that would allow city government to tap billions of private investor funds for public schools, transportation, and other much needed infrastructure projects.

The first project of the trust, according to a City Hall press release, will work with debt and equity investors to finance $200-225 million to retrofit municipal buildings for more energy efficiency–reducing consumption by 20% according to estimates. Another proposed project is a 10-route Bus Rapid Transit network in the city. Buses would travel on dedicated lanes, have rapid boarding systems, and coordinated traffic lights.

Yet with the parking meter privatization fiasco still fresh in their minds, Chicago aldermen told Emanuel to “slow down” earlier in the week during hearings, so the vote isn’t a done deal yet. They also chafed at the lack of say they would have in the eventual projects. A five-member board would decide how the money is spent. Calling the trust an  ”Investigative Reporter Stimulus Act,” Chicago Tribune columnist John Kass further mocked the urgency that Emanuel insists on in passing the initiative.

Others, however, have gotten behind the trust as an innovative way to build a regional powerhouse with Chicago at the center.

First and foremost are the investors– among them Citibank,  Citi Infrastructure Investors, Macquarie Infrastructure and Real Assets Inc., J.P. Morgan Asset Management Infrastructure Investment Group, and Ullico. They will earn back their investment in various ways–although just how, and how much, remains unclear.

World-class infrastructure is indeed important to any metro area. The transportation and logistics sector in the Chicago region is seriously threatened by congestion and aging infrastructure. And the build-out and repair is an enormous undertaking. As Metropolitan Policy Council’s president Mary Sue Barrett said, “Expecting sectors to ‘go it alone’ in … solving its infrastructure challenges is short-sighted.”

Addressing infrastructure could also complement a more regional approach to planning in the metro area. The infrastructure trust was unveiled a day after Emanuel presented his Plan for Economic Growth and Jobs, which identifies 10 “mutually reinforcing” strategies for growth. One of its first goals listed is to increase gross regional product.

But several things impede this potential.  A recent OECD report, for example, pointed out that one reason for Chicago’s paltry standing among metros is its proliferation of governments and a lack of regional planning. As Paula Worthington, a senior lecturer at the University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy, notes in a recent article:

Take transportation. Where is the tri-state region’s master plan for a comprehensive, integrated plan for road, rail and air travel? Where are inter-county bus services? Express rail to and from airports? Holistic regional planning for air service and serious road congestion mitigation plans that cross jurisdictional boundaries?

The OECD report also pointed to inter-regional rivalries and the lack of cooperation as damaging the area’s prospects. The OECD, Worthington notes, does not suggest creating yet another regional body to add to the numerous transportation boards and metropolitan planning boards in addition to too-numerous-to-count  county, municipal and state governments. Instead let the MPOs lead an effort to “collaborate on land use, water, and transportation issues, going across state lines to do so.”

Whatever the outcome of the City Hall vote today, it seems that a regional perspective is at least beginning to be taken seriously.

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