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Blizzard of complaints for Emanuel’s street resurfacing plan

A stretch potholes along Wacker drive. | Alex Wroblewski/Sun-Times

A stretch of potholes along Wacker drive. | Alex Wroblewski/Sun-Times

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Updated: June 1, 2014 6:29AM

Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s plan to use $18 million in federal community development block grant funds to resurface 15 miles of winter-ravaged arterial streets cleared a key hurdle Tuesday, but not before a blizzard of complaints.

Prior to the Budget Committee vote, aldermen from across the city beefed about not being consulted on which main streets to repave. And they complained about Emanuel’s decision to freeze spending in a treasured, $66 million-a-year program evenly distributed to aldermen to spend on a menu of neighborhood improvements.

“Arterial streets are a need. Where we have a bigger need . . . is in the neighborhoods. [And] $1.3 million [per-alderman is not enough]. I’ve got one street [Indiana Avenue where] three blocks is gonna cost me $375,000. . . . That’s 20 percent of my menu and I’ve got six communities. This does not work,” said South Side Ald. Willie Cochran (20th).

“We have to see how we can reallocate some of these funds for neighborhood streets. . . . We cannot pay for all of the streets in our communities that have been damaged by this past winter.”

West Side Ald. Jason Ervin (28th) argued that using CDBG funds to repave arterial streets that “transport people through” inner-city communities “violates the spirit” of federal block grant funding, which was intended to help those needy neighborhoods.

“Maybe some of this should be reallocated to the actual community itself — not necessarily for those traveling through, but for those who actually live there, which would lead us toward more neighborhood streets,” Ervin said.

Noting that CDBG money is “geographically limited,” Ervin asked Deputy Transportation Commissioner Dan Burke, “How do you figure to use this money citywide?”

Burke said CDOT officials would start with a citywide map of eligible CDBG zones, then pick the “fifteen worst miles in Chicago” based in large part on the number of potholes filled and pothole complaints filed.

“When you see those streets, it’s pretty readily evident which streets are some of the worst out there. And we’ll make every effort to make sure [there is] as even a distribution of those fifteen miles as we possibly can citywide,” Burke said.

That guarantee was not enough to satisfy Ald. Anthony Beale (9th), chairman of the City Council’s Transportation Committee.

Beale asked why aldermen were not consulted about “their priorities” for street resurfacing. He further demanded that menu money evenly distributed — with $1.32 million allotted to each of the 50 aldermen--be unevenly allocated, based on the size of each ward.

“We need to start putting the bulk of the resources where you have the most mileage and problems,” Beale said.

Beale was not the only one demanding an increase in menu money to Chicago’s largest wards. So did Ald. Tim Cullerton (38th), whose Northwest Side ward is “one of the largest-per-square-mile area in terms of streets” in Chicago.

“We’re losing the battle every year,” Cullerton said.

Far South Side Ald. Carrie Austin (34th) added, “I have many, many more streets than some of my colleagues do, but they still get the same amount of money. We’re doing arterial streets, which is infrastructure, and they’re doing pretty stuff. That’s an unfair process.”

Southwest Side Ald. Matt O’Shea (19th) said he has 147 miles of “residential road surface” in his ward — lined by “old decrepit street lights” — while other aldermen have 40 miles.

“We all get $1.3 million, but some of us have more than three times as much road surface to maintain. Three times as many street lights. And our street lighting system is failing before our very eyes, folks. Take a look at your 311 requests. The outages five years ago and the outages today are off the charts,” O’Shea said.

“When we all woke up after the winter, we realized our road surfaces are crumbling. We need to begin having discussions — real discussions — about equitable” distribution.

When Emanuel took office three years ago, aldermen feared the $66 million-a-year menu program they treasure would be on the chopping block to solve the city’s financial crisis.

Instead, the mayor ordered dramatic changes to stretch precious capital dollars further, improve coordination and reduce aldermanic discretion.

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