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Emanuel pushing $7.3 billion plan to rebuild Chicago’s infrastructure

Mayor Rahm Emanuel. File photo. | Richard A. Chapman~Sun-Times

Mayor Rahm Emanuel. File photo. | Richard A. Chapman~Sun-Times

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Updated: May 1, 2012 8:18AM

Mayor Rahm Emanuel on Thursday urged major airlines squeezed by skyrocketing fuel prices to come to the table a year early and negotiate a fourth new runway at O’Hare Airport as part of a $7.3 billion plan to rebuild Chicago’s infrastructure and create 30,000 jobs.

“I’m announcing this when we have everything secure on the very day Washington is doing a 60-day extension on the highway bill. The last highway bill was 2005. I can’t let the city be held hostage to that dysfunction,” the mayor told the Chicago Sun-Times.

The runway talks were the one new piece of a largely repackaged infrastructure plan that would: eliminate 26 miles of slow zones on the CTA’s Blue Line over the next ten years; renovate more than 100 CTA stations; build a new Green Line station connecting McCormick Place to Motor Row and launch an ambitious bus rapid transit plan on the South Side and in the Central Business District.

Last year, a $155 million infusion of federal funding and concessions by retiring Mayor Richard M. Daley convinced United and American Airlines to drop their unprecedented lawsuit against the city so construction could resume on $1.17 billion in O’Hare expansion work, including a far south runway that was supposed to be completed last.

Daley agreed that a new western terminal the airlines don’t want would be developed only if demand requires it. City Hall also agreed to negotiate — not dictate — construction of a north runway.

The $2.23 billion in remaining O’Hare projects were to be the subject of a new round of negotiations slated to begin no later than March 1, 2013.

Now, Emanuel is pushing that fourth runway and moving up the timetable for negotiations to reduce delays by 80 percent, boost capacity by 300,000-passenger-a-year by 2015 and eliminate the need for a third airport.

“If I owned property in Peotone, I’d be looking to put it on the market right now,” joked Ald. Pat O’Connor (40th), the mayor’s City Council floor leader.

Emanuel refused to say whether he was willing to scrap the western terminal to get a fourth runway.

“I’m not gonna deal with what-if’s. I’m gonna deal with first getting a discussion started,” he said.

Why talk now, when airlines are choking on higher fuel prices?

“It is in everybody’s self-interest to keep O’Hare modern and the best-run airport in the world,” he said.

United Airlines spokeswoman Megan McCarthy said O’Hare’s largest carrier would “continue to work with the city on demand-driven projects.”

American Airlines spokeswoman Mary Frances Fagan said: “American is very supportive of modernizing O’Hare and ensuring that it retains its stature as one of the preeminent airports in the world, however, we remain completely focused on our restructuring and we have limited ability to make commitments going forward. We are under court-supervised Chapter 11. We are very willing to listen to the city and engage in conversation but our immediate focus is on coming out of restructuring a strong and vigorous competitor in the Chicago market.”

Emanuel is giving his infrastructure program a name — “Building a New Chicago”— and a price tag of $7.3 billion over three years. But it’s little more than political packaging by a new administration that’s fast become famous for it.

Most, if not all, of the CTA, water, sewer, parks, schools and City Colleges projects have been announced before. So has the $1.7 billion “infrastructure trust” the mayor hopes to use to bankroll some of the projects.

The money is expected to come from five financing giants, the largest chunk from Macquarie Infrastructure and Real Assets, Inc, the Spanish-Australian consortium that paid $1.83 billion to lease the Chicago Skyway for 99 years in exchange for pocketing tolls and continuing to raise them.

The Infrastructure Trust is expected to launch with $225 million in energy efficiency projects for government buildings, with $20 million in anticipated energy savings used to repay investors.

But, many of the other projects the city is looking to finance will need to have their own revenue streams.

That’s why the mayor specifically mentioned the city’s plan to build 16 miles of bus-rapid transit on Jeffrey Boulevard this year and add a similar route in the Central Loop next year.

Passengers could be asked to pay higher fares for faster rides. High-speed internet service could also be financed by a fee paid by businesses and individuals.

Emanuel shed no new light on what user fees would need to be imposed to make certain investors get their money back with interest.

He simply assured Chicagoans that funding was “secured” and that, “None of these funds will come from raising new taxes.”

In vintage Emanuel hyperbole, the mayor likened the $7.3 billion in infrastructure projects to rebuilding the city from the ashes after the Great Chicago Fire.

The speech was delivered at a Laborers Union training facility because the union was the first to agree to an apprenticeship program for the 30,000 jobs.

“Labor has to make sure we have an apprentice program that’s fair to everybody. I’m asking them to work with me,” the mayor said.

Chicago Federation of Labor President Jorge Ramirez replied, “The Laborers came out of the gate pretty hard — and it was pretty wise. Other trades will follow.”

To get to the $7.3 billion figure, Emanuel is bundling together a host of projects, including the massive rebuilding of Chicago’s water and sewer system paid for by his plan to double water and sewer rates over the next four years.

Other projects include: fixing 26 miles of CTA slow zones and renovating, repairing or rebuilding 100 CTA stations over the next ten years; building a new Green Line station at 22nd and Cermak; acquiring 180 acres of park land over five years and building 12 new parks, 20 new playgrounds, and eight artificial turf fields; building a new Malcolm X College and a new classroom building at Olive-Harvey College.

Emanuel acknowledged that the plan is bold, but necessary to prevent Chicago from suffering another “lost decade” economically.

“Boldness is nothing new to Chicago. It’s in our bones. It’s part of our DNA,” he said.

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