Unknowns don't derail Emanuel's infrastructure trust

April 24, 2012

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(AP/Susan Walsh)

Chicago aldermen approved a plan on Tuesday to use private investment money to directly finance city projects. Mayor Rahm Emanuel's so-called "infrastructure trust" passed 41 to seven after more than two hours of debate.

The mayor said the city's infrastructure is crumbling, and with the city holding billions in debt, he needs a new way to pay for the repairs. Aldermen supporting the plan listed specific ways to use that money.

"I could use this tool to expand and improve upon the DuSable Museum," Ald. Willie Cochran of the 20th Ward suggested.

"The economic health and vitality of my ward depend on the health and vibrancy of the Red Line," 49th Ward Ald. Joe Moore more than hinted.

"Lathrop Homes, as some of you know, is a housing project in the First Ward along the Chicago River," said Ald. Joe Moreno of the 1st Ward, offering another destination for the money.

But there's no guarantee the money will be spent on those projects. The mayor won't say what the trust will finance, other than that the first project is to make city buildings more energy efficient. Private investors would be paid back - plus a profit - using utility bill savings

Alderman Toni Foulkes of the 15th Ward said her opposition to the infrastructure trust comes down to trust. She said her constituents have seen government programs fail them before.

"People have been promising us over and over and over again to trust. And we've been let down. And now people are afraid. They're terrified," Foulkes said.

Meanwhile, supporters of the trust clearly bristled at a criticism that's been made: that it could turn out to be just like that other public-private partnership.

"It's the antithesis of the parking meters," Moore said.

"This is so far from the parking meters, it's unbelievable," agreed Ald. Dick Mell of the 33rd Ward.

"We have something called PMT," 35th Ward Ald. Rey Colon said. "It's parking meter trauma."

"There's medication for that," Emanuel deadpanned.

Emanuel also strained to dismiss the comparison during a speech before the vote.

"It's night and day," he told aldermen.

Infrastructure trust backers said, unlike the way former Mayor Richard Daley handled the parking meter deal, Emanuel has listened to their concerns and made some changes.

Those changes weren't enough to win over the seven dissenting aldermen, who argued the trust will lack transparency, oversight and taxpayer safeguards.

Emanuel was forced to put off a vote on the ordinance last week, after some aldermen threatened to delay it with a parliamentary maneuver.