The following op-ed is from The Grassroots Collaborative.
This Wednesday, Mayor Rahm Emanuel plans to introduce an ordinance
that would create a Chicago Infrastructure Trust. Touted as an
innovative solution to create financing for massive projects, the Trust
would enable global financiers to lend Chicago millions of dollars, in
projects that would guarantee profits for their investments. Interested
Firms include Macquerie Infrastructure, which is set to make billions of
dollars already on the skyway.
Chicago's infrastructure needs are apparent. From school buildings without air conditioning or libraries, to deteriorating bridges, to broken street lights and potholes pocketing neighborhood streets, the needs are long.
Details of the Trust, however, are hard to come by. But what does seem clear is that the Mayor’s plans continue the status quo of squeezing working families to foot the bills. That's because for these corporations to put in money, they need projects with revenue streams to generate funds to pay them back, and then some.
One of the infrastructure needs
mentioned would improve Chicago's public transportation system.
Extending the Red line from 95th Street to the southern city border of
130th Street is long overdue. Communities in Roseland, Pullman, and
others on the Far South Side have struggled for years with decrepit
Though Emanuel insists his plan is different from the parking meter lease, James Hooke, Macquerie's chief operating officer, contradicted this clearly in the Chicago Tribune. "All of these schemes, whatever label you put on it, involve some sort of asset being sold over for a period of time so the private investor can get a return on their investment."
To pay the global firms a return on their investment, the City is floating the idea of a new fare structure, one that charges higher fares based on distance traveled.
This poses the most troubling aspect of the plan. Low-income black residents on the Far South Side, after struggling decades without train service, finally may get it, but will have to pay the price. To use the el, those residents will have to pay more. Meanwhile, those who live near city center, primarily white Chicagoans with higher incomes and more transit options, will continue to enjoy lower fares that come with the privilege of living near downtown.
Chicago's segregation and high income disparities are evident in any map of the city that looks at race or class. A distance-based fare system, though equitable in some cities, would only increase the chasm in Chicago between the working poor and the upper class. For example, a UIC study on transit equity found that seventy-three percent (73%) of households are low-income in the Greater Roseland area, compared to a 49% regional mean. To make matters worse, the increased fares paid by Far South Side residents would go directly into the pockets of the private investors, not the city.
Any family struggling in poverty understands that when you buy something rent-to-own, you end up paying much, much more than if you had the money to pay for it outright. A distance-based fare structure for public transit would place the full burden of these extra costs squarely on the backs of the 99% - people of color and low-income communities, while the 1% continues to just get richer.
So what are some revenue solutions that don't burden the 99%? There are several. One is to shut down downtown TIF districts, such as LaSalle Central TIF district, that takes in tens of millions of taxpayer dollars every year. Instead of going to schools, parks, and libraries - all key institutions that make up Chicago's infrastructure, TIF districts in the wealthy downtown center instead gets used to give unneeded help to already profitable corporations such as United Airlines, and skyscrapers like Willis Tower. A moratorium on any future downtown TIF deal would free up huge revenue streams that instead could be spent on addressing neighborhood needs.
Another solution is for entities like World Business Chicago, who can come up with tens of millions of dollars for social functions for the NATO summit, to invest in Chicago neighborhoods through the creation of a Jobs Trust. $100 million for jobs, for example, could create over 40,000 summer jobs for youth. Instead of summer jobs for youth being funded by working parents who haven’t paid their parking tickets, lets go after the real deadbeats in the state – corporations like the Chicago Mercantile Exchange who lobbied to get $77 million in tax breaks every year, despite making $2 billion in profits in 2011. Why not expect Chicago's business leaders, who profit handsomely by being based in Chicago, to invest in the long-term health of its residents? A global city takes care of its neighborhoods.
An interesting idea comes from a coalition of groups proposing a Chicago-owned bank. Using Chicago's surplus TIF funds, the city could pool its own revenue to fund long-term infrastructure projects, for much less than a private entity. Analysts agree that had Chicago sold municipal bonds and increased tolls themselves, the Chicago Skyway would have generated much more revenue for the City than giving away the asset to Macquerie. A Chicago Public Bank would allow us to generate financing that the city controls. Why should we give more money to big banks like JP Morgan, who are already making billions of dollars off our parking meters?
And yet, aldermen are expected to consider this measure and vote for its passage by April. Though a month is longer than Mayor Daley's gift of 20 minutes before shoving through the parking meter debacle, it is not enough to have the critical public dialogue about who is really bearing the brunt of the burden for this and every other "innovation" to emerge from the city.
Let’s slow this down. Chicago residents deserve to have their questions answered. Claims that the mayor-appointed entity overseeing this Trust will voluntarily submit to the city's transparency laws do little to assure us - there are endless loopholes and tactics that the city employs already to withhold information from residents. Its time to forward equitable revenue solutions - Chicago's 99% have already paid more than their fair share. It is time to forward the radical notion that taxpayer dollars should benefit the 99%, not pad the profits of the financial elite.