“What if” are two words that question regrettable circumstances without satisfying answers. “What if” Chicago had invested the proceeds from its landmark lease deals into revenue-generating projects; would we be in the same pickle we’re in today? The problem with “What if” is that you can never know the answer for sure because, as of yet, no one has invented a reliable time machine to go back and try it again.
On Oct. 21, Mayor Daley unveiled his proposed 2010 budget for Chicago, which relies heavily on tapping reserves generated from the long-term lease of the Skyway, parking garages and parking meters – nearly $400 million. Everyone, the Mayor included, recognizes that this is bad fiscal policy. With only $730 million remaining from the nearly $3.5 billion collected from all three, Chicago has essentially punted this year’s budget mess to our children’s children’s children to deal with (the longest lease deal expires in 2104). But what choice did it have? Revenues from the property, sales and real estate transfer taxes were down 31%.
What if the lease proceeds, say $2 billion of them, were spent instead on a new, modern transportation system like Bus Rapid Transit (BRT)? Because of MPC’s research last year, we know congestion costs the region $7.3 billion a year in lost time, wasted fuel and environmental damages. Congestion also stymies the creation of 87,000 jobs. $2 billion could go a long way to relieving congestion on arterial streets (where half the region’s congestion occurs). With $2 billion we could build 166 miles of BRT, enough to go from one end of Western Avenue to the other – SEVEN times! That’s 166 miles of clean, quick, efficient transit service that would reduce congestion, increase economic output, and attract new business, jobs and residents who all pay more taxes and fees. Perhaps those increases would have offset the budget gap Chicago faces today, but we will never know because “what if” is easy to ask in hindsight, but doesn't help us fix our current pickle.
What "what if" can do is help us next time such an opportunity arises.