| Scott Stewart~Sun-Times
Updated: May 16, 2012 8:22AM
If the Chicago region hopes to regain its competitive position in the world, we must make infrastructure — the basic building block of the economy — a top priority.
The Chicago City Council at its next meeting will vote on the Chicago Infrastructure Trust, Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s proposal for a public-private partnership to spur economic growth. The trust offers the possibility of billions of dollars in private capital and public funding while maintaining the city’s ownership of infrastructure.
Governments have combined public and private dollars for centuries to fund infrastructure. America’s great railroads, canals, water utilities, roads and transit grew from government initiatives that leveraged private capital to spur the economy.
The Chicago Infrastructure Trust’s most immediate projects are likely to be of two types: those that produce revenue and those that reduce the operating costs of an asset. The profits and savings would both be invested in the Trust.
Assets that don’t produce revenue or savings, or “social assets” — City Hall, police stations and court buildings, for example—are unlikely investment targets for the Trust. Nevertheless, the available pool of funds for social assets might expand if those projects no longer compete with Trust-eligible projects, as they do today.
The Infrastructure Trust is a step in the right direction, but the City Council must be vigilant in its oversight. Its top priority should be repair and upgrading of deteriorating infrastructure.
The council must ensure that the capital planning process is transparent; that projects are prioritized according to expected use, impact, value, and development potential; that all beneficiaries pay for what they use, and that maintenance funding for each asset is sufficient for its useful life.
Chicago’s long-term economic rejuvenation depends on the partnership between government and the private sector.
Emanuel is to be applauded for moving the conversation about the city’s crumbling public infrastructure to public-private efforts toward the regional economy of the future.
Just as our forebears did two centuries ago.
Michael Pagano is dean of the University of Illinois at Chicago’s College of Urban Planning and Public Affairs.