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Who trusts Rahm’s ‘trust me’ plan?

Updated: May 26, 2012 8:22AM

With Gorbachev himself in town for that summit of Nobel Peace laureates, you would have thought at least one alderman would have stood up at Tuesday’s special City Council meeting and reminded Mayor Rahm Emanuel:

“Trust, but verify.”

That favorite Cold War line of Ronald Reagan is more than applicable to the mayor’s Infrastructure Trust Me plan, which Emanuel rammed through Tuesday despite continuing concerns that it lacks sufficient oversight to protect taxpayers.

As you know, the mayor’s plan is really called the Chicago Infrastructure Trust, but “trust me” is such a major component of how it’s being sold that it really ought to be part of the official name.

I don’t trust anybody who tells me they’ve discovered an untapped source of billions of dollars that could be the key to Chicago’s future but can’t tell me how they plan to use it, let alone how to pay it back.

That being said, I’m less worried about the creation of the trust itself than the particulars of the individual projects it will later finance. That will be the real test of whether the taxpayers are protected. At this point, it’s mostly theoretical.

Ald. Joe Moore’s theory is that the Infrastructure Trust could fund the modernization of the CTA’s Red and Purple lines and the extension of the Red Line to 130th Street.

Moore, who represents the lakefront’s 49th Ward, is someone who for most of his career could have been counted upon to cast a skeptical eye on such a proposal. But he was the leadoff cheerleader for the mayor’s plan, offering such a detailed rebuttal to the critics you might have thought he was trying to curry favor with someone. “As with any new and untried approach, there are risks and no guarantee of success, but the only thing worse than trying this new approach is to try nothing at all,” he said.

Moore said the Infrastructure Trust is needed because city government is drowning in debt and can’t expect either Washington or Springfield to provide the funding for its infrastructure needs — such as the billions of dollars needed to rebuild the CTA lines, which he called the “lifeblood” of his ward.

I asked Moore after the vote how he expected the Trust might pay back such an investment if private funding were used to fund CTA improvements.

At first, he demurred, saying he “just threw that out” as an example his constituents could understand, but when I pressed, he offered: “Potentially, you could pay for it through the fare box.”

Meaning a fare increase?

“Possibly,” Moore said.

I’d say “probably” is the better response in that case, keeping in mind we’re all just speaking hypothetically here.

I’m not saying that’s a bad idea, only that it should be out there on the table.

My main objection remains that the mayor is acting as if there are benevolent private investor groups just itching to shower Chicago with money and jobs when the truth is that they’re only looking for a new angle to make money off the city.

There’s nothing wrong with them trying to make money. It’s even possible the city could benefit in the process. But there just hasn’t been a full and frank discussion of how the Trust will work in practice.

The mayor keeps saying he doesn’t really know how the Trust will be used beyond an initial project to finance $220 million in energy-saving improvements, mostly to public buildings.

City officials say they are confident this “Retrofit Chicago” program will be successful because similar financings have already been accomplished elsewhere. Of course, that was presumably in places without an Infrastructure Trust, as we are supposed to be the first.

It makes you wonder why we can’t just do the retrofit project and be done with it instead of committing the city to a new off-the-books branch of government.

Finance Committee Chairman Edward Burke (14th) wrapped up the cheerleading for Emanuel’s plan with his own take on trusting the Trust.

“I think what we’re really being asked today is to trust Chicago’s people,” he said.

I trust that Chicago’s people want us to keep a very close eye on this.

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