Is Chicago on track toward more equitable infrastructure investment? - Metropolitan Planning Council

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Is Chicago on track toward more equitable infrastructure investment?

If Chicago is to realize a more equitable future, infrastructure investment must reflect citywide priorities with an emphasis on historically disinvested community areas. How Chicago plans, selects, and funds projects is pivotal to achieving equity.

Image courtesy Adam Slade

Capital Improvement Programs have historically been underfunded, a trend echoed throughout the state of Illinois and across the metropolitan region. This prompted the independent Metropolitan Planning Council to launch its #BustedCommute social media campaign in 2018 to illustrate the need for greater infrastructure investment. The State’s 2019 Rebuild Illinois package initiated a reinvestment trend in infrastructure throughout Illinois, including investment directly in the Chicagoland region. As a result of the state capital bill's passage, MPC and partners have stepped up advocacy for equity criteria in the project selection process.  Bills have been introduced this session by Rep. Kam Buckner (HB 253) and Sen. Ram Villivalam (SB 2475) that would establish a statewide transparent, performance-based transportation project selection process incorporating equity.

With momentum building on the State level, where does Chicago stand in pursuit of equitable investments? On average, capital assets (think roads, bridges) have depreciated to half their financial useful life. That level of investment is respectable, especially for an older city. Yet the question facing Chicago is not on the amount of investment, but where investment is taking place. In the past, Chicago has prioritized downtown development and site or issue-specific planning (such as neighborhood corridors and transit), through its Central Business District planning activities while lacking an updated citywide plan that incorporates both the downtown and neighborhoods. An analysis is needed to know how old infrastructure is in different areas of the city to assess conditions through an equity lens.

Citywide Planning. The first element of equitable investment is a community-informed plan that envisions equitable investment across the city. Recently, the Chicago Community Trust, MPC, and The Department of Planning and Development (DPD) convened conversations with other cities to learn about their citywide planning efforts. The City is preparing to engage communities for We Will Chicago, the first Citywide Plan for Chicago effort since the 1960s. In addition to providing a hopeful vision for the city, comprehensive and citywide plans allow for aligning budgets, resources, and investments with priorities and set the stage for capital improvement plans, creating the criteria for capital project selection for local government. 

Even without an updated plan, the city is taking steps toward inclusive and transparent project selection. In 2019-2020, the Office of the Inspector General completed an audit of the City's Capital Improvement Program, As a result, the City agreed to make changes to its 2021 capital program. The City describes its 2021 Five-Year Capital Plan priorities is rooted in needs-based condition assessments and data-driven processes conducted by the Chicago Department of Transportation (CDOT) and the Department of Assets, Information, and Services (AIS).

As a best practice, the maintenance of existing capital assets should be prioritized before new development. While the capital plan process description sounds promising, specific criteria and prioritization should be provided to the public to determine what justification is provided for the selection of each project. As a next step, the City needs to define the criteria that inform equity considerations in project selection.

Aldermanic menu money. Historically, each of Chicago’s 50 wards has been allocated $1.32 million per ward for capital projects, regardless of its geographical size or physical needs. The money is also not allocated based on an assessment of citywide needs. The Aldermanic Menu Program has been described as pork spending, leading to investment inequalities between neighborhoods. With a Capital Improvement Program significantly underfunded, this poses serious concerns about equitable investments throughout the city. 

Office of Inspector General – City of Chicago 2015

Aldermanic Menu Funding as a percent of Infrastructure Need

A few potential solutions have been developed to address these unwanted outcomes. In 2019, the Inspector General of Chicago recommended ending street paving from the aldermanic menu program to give full street paving authority to the Chicago Department of Transportation (CDOT). With 50 Alderpersons making capital project decisions in conjunction with departments like CDOT, systemic evaluation and effective investment in infrastructure becomes less likely and is driven by ward-level funding availability instead of citywide, criteria-based selection. Despite efforts by Mayor Lori Lightfoot, the elimination of aldermanic street paving using menu money and its incorporation into CDOT's portfolio was unsuccessful due to limited buy-in from aldermen.

In the 2021 Capital Plan, annual aldermanic menu money is set to increase for the first time in years from $1.32 million per ward to $1.5 million per ward. This increase will likely not be enough to address all the needs of a community. While this may have been a politically advantageous move to get the budget and bond issue approved, it may further inequities across wards.

Despite the identified downsides of the Aldermanic Menu Program, there is some local democracy convergence if communities are consulted about the use of menu money. Some wards engage in a participatory budgeting process with their menu money, such as Ald. Taliaferro of the 29th, Ald. Rodriguez of the 33rd, Ald. Ramirez-Rosa of the 35th, Ald. Nugent of the 39thAld. Vasquez of the 40th, Ald. Cappleman of the 46th, Ald. Martin of the 47th, and Ald. Hadden of the 49th. These activities can promote local empowerment through guidance from interested community members. Handled poorly, potential pitfalls can emerge. Careful listening, broad outreach, and centering community voices are all critical, which can be more challenging during a pandemic.

Transparency. As noted by the Civic Federation, Chicago’s 2021 Capital Plan does not include detail regarding capital projects funded by revenues outside of general obligation bonds, such as tax increment financing, federal and/or state funds, or revenue bonds. It also does not detail information about water, sewer, and aviation capital improvements typically funded by revenue bonds. 

Some reforms have been passed to improve processes and transparency. Mayor Lightfoot added restrictions to the use of TIF districts in February 2020, potentially making TIF designations more transparent. While there is potential for reform through the citywide planning process, emerging selection criteria, general obligation bonding not dependent on TIF funds, these disparate reforms need to be knitted together into a proactive Capital Improvement process to benefit Chicago residents.

The city deserves a holistic capital plan that clearly illustrates infrastructure priorities. Without a citywide plan with approval criteria, large projects can be approved outside of a coordinated capital plan. We Will Chicago can set priorities for a  foundation to apply equity-based criteria for project selection and approval. Without this, it is nearly impossible to determine whether we are investing equitably throughout the city.

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