Reinventing public investment for a greener Chicago region - Metropolitan Planning Council

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Reinventing public investment for a greener Chicago region

The final installment of the MPC-CAF summer discussion series, "Reinventing Public Investment," focused on opportunities for more environmentally and economically sustainable energy, drinking water, and wastewater policies.

The Reinventing Public Investment series, presented by MPC and the Chicago Architecture Foundation, came to a rousing close on Aug. 17, as the three panelists urged policy shifts to encourage more efficient energy and water-related spending. Many of the decisions made by local officials and private utilities are informed by priorities in Washington, D.C., and Springfield, which can either impede or incubate innovative solutions. Through analysis of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) and examples from Chicago and Milwaukee, the panel argued that much work needs to be done to assure investment is as goal-driven and coordinated as possible.

Rebecca Stanfield, senior energy advocate for the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Midwest office, examined the emerging federal energy policy, and particularly ARRA energy spending, to assess its consistency with MPC’s recent white paper - Goal-driven, Right-sized and Coordinated: Federal Investment Reform for the 21st Century – which outlines principles for wiser investment policies and highlights five examples of them in action. “The ultimate goal is an ample power supply, but there are different routes to get there. The federal government is really prioritizing efficiency, independence, lower greenhouse gas emissions, domestic manufacturing of the supply chain, and local job creation,” explained Stanfield. The numbers, she argued, should speak for themselves. “Saving a kilowatt-hour of electricity costs 3-5 cents, while generating one costs 10-13 cents. At the same time, building retrofits, for example, create 17 jobs for every million dollars of investment, while the same dollars get you seven jobs in the coal industry and four for oil and gas.” While Stanfield did not believe ARRA was at all sufficient to transform federal energy policy, individual programs such as the Smart Grid Investment Grant do explicitly encourage goal-driven investment, and bode well for the future.

Kevin Shafer, executive director of the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District (MMSD), agreed. “You have to be true to your goal, and try to provide multiple benefits, if possible.” There are many means of protecting water supplies, providing efficient stormwater management, and reducing impact on the environment, from wetlands protection to deep storage tunnels. For the Milwaukee region, realizing this has meant a fundamental shift in how the MMSD operates. In the 1970s, the dominant source of stormwater runoff pollution was from combined sewer overflows, so MMSD developed the heavy infrastructure needed to separate systems and capture overflow, reducing total pollution by half. Now, however, 68 percent of the problem is urban, non-agricultural runoff, and MMSD has determined green infrastructure is the best solution. Historically, however, green infrastructure projects have not fared well in the competitive allocation process for the State Revolving Loan Funds, through which the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) assists states and communities with water-related infrastructure. The selection criteria have historically tended to favor expansion of heavy “gray” infrastructure. “As the loan programs get reauthorized this fall, you’d like to see the criteria be better connected to the goals in question,” said Shafer.

The final speaker, Peter Mulvaney, sustainable infrastructure administrator for the City of Chicago Dept. of Water Management, used two images – one was a schematic of the many layers of infrastructure that lie beneath our feet (e.g. sewer, drinking water, power, telephone, gas, etc.), the other was a photo of the confluence of the Chicago River with Lake Michigan – to emphasize the need for coordinated investment between government agencies, municipalities, and the private sector. “In this photo of the lake, you’ve got the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, City of Chicago, Pier Authority, USEPA, Ill. Dept. of Natural Resources, Metropolitan Water Reclamation District, Coast Guard … it just goes on and on. Each group has its own mission and goals. If federal spending can encourage coordination, that would be a real boost.”

While the Reinventing Public Investment series is completed, discussions on coordination and goal-driven investment continue. Most notably, MPC’s September 17 Annual Luncheon will feature three Cabinet officials to discuss the coordination between the U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development, U.S. Dept. of Transportation, and USEPA. Beyond that, the reauthorization of the federal transportation bill and state revolving loan funds for water infrastructure, and proposed climate change bill all create opportunities for federal spending to prioritize economic and environmental sustainability.

Previous events in the series focused on infrastructure (June 5) and livable communities (July 14). For more information about the lecture series or MPC’s commitment to federal investment reform, please contact Josh Ellis at or (312) 863-6045.


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