No bright spot for Emanuel in Chicago streetlight project's cost
Chicago’s long-delayed streetlight replacement project will cost approximately $160 million, Mayor Rahm Emanuel recently announced.
The price is more than twice that of a similar project in New York City, reported a non-profit group that ironically enough says it is "shining a light" on Illinois government.
The steep price tag and the fact that it will be funded through traditional infrastructure financing methods — city bonds, for example — is a blow to Emanuel, the Better Government Association (BGA) argued.
Emanuel created an infrastructure trust in 2012 to allow the city to take on infrastructure projects without creating massive bills for Chicago’s taxpayers. The trust was intended to spark out-of-the-box thinking and create innovative measures to generate private interest in infrastructure investment.
Five years ago, the idea behind the trust was to remove public spending and risk from the equation when financing infrastructure projects, but the BGA contends that in reality, that vision hasn’t panned out. The streetlight project being financed through city bonds and other public financing is yet another sign of the trust not functioning as originally intended.
Further, the price tag on the streetlight program is higher than expected. The BGA reported that a city transportation spokesperson pegged the number of lights to be replaced at 270,000. That puts the project in the same league as a similar streetlight overhaul in New York City, but the cost there is expected to be roughly half that of Chicago’s.
The same transportation spokesperson explained the price difference as a measure of complexity, arguing that that Chicago's project is more involved than New York's. In addition to replacing 270,000 light fixtures with energy-efficient LED lights, the city also plans to replace or update other lighting infrastructure, including some wires and poles. Further, Chicago’s system will install new technology to assist city workers in maintenance. Through a new management system, official will receive alerts when the new lights need to be replaced.
This project has been on the infrastructure trust’s agenda almost since its inception. The BGA pointed out that the lighting overhaul project is now four years in the making, though the trust did not secure private funding in that time.
For the streetlight project, the trust has acted as a procurement manager. Overseeing the tender and vetting process, the infrastructure trust helped Chicago choose Ameresco of Massachusetts as lead contractor, though it is still not a done deal. The contract for the project is headed to City Council for approval, and if it is accepted the transportation department expects that work will begin this summer, according to its spokesman. This scheduled start date is several months after Emanuel’s initial prediction of a spring launch.
While the streetlight replacement project is long overdue, its circumstances erode claims from the Emanuel administration that the infrastructure trust is working as promised. According to the BGA report, infrastructure trust Executive Director Leslie Darling hailed the organization in a press conference on the same day Emanuel announced project’s the costs. She praised the trust for enabling the city to “do major initiatives that wouldn’t be possible otherwise.”
The realities borne out by the streetlight overhaul instead show that the trust has not succeeded in its goal to spur private investment in public infrastructure and further that it has not enabled infrastructure projects to move quickly to implementation.
"That role for the infrastructure trust is far different — and reduced -- from how Emanuel proclaimed it would be when he launched the initiative 2012 with former President Bill Clinton by his side," wrote the BGA in its report.