CN March 29, 2012

It’s a big-picture discussion this week about Chicago’s  economy and environment .

Mayor Emanuel’s announcement today of a seven-billion dollar infrastructure program for the city has long-term implications for transportation, water quality and sewage.  But as David Roeder of the Sun-Times points out, there are concerns that this massive pot of money might “go off the books” and not be subject to the oversight of the City Council and such legal provisions as the Open Meetings Act and the Purchasing Act. It could be managed in a way not too different from the TIF program, but with hugely larger numbers.

But Henry  Henderson, Midwest Director for the Natural Resources Defense Council, points out that Rahm Emanuel has always had a strong interest in finding ways to finance big projects over the long term. That protects large, beneficial projects from waves of political whim that undercut multi-year developments.

We’ve been gripped, Henderson says, with “a sickness, that somehow government is the enemy of the people”.  “The fact is”, he says, “we would have no transportation, we would have no water system…(none) of these things that are critical to our health, safety, welfare and economy” without government involvement and funding.

We also discuss the announced closings of the Fisk, Crawford and State Line coal power plants, which Henderson says were “subsidized by peoples’ lungs”, and have come to the end of their lives partly because “the alleged cheap coal is not cheap”.

Roeder gives us a summary of Chicago’s current economic picture, and it’s surprisingly positive. Office space rental downtown is picking up, especially in the up-market sector, housing sales are moving upward, especially in neighborhoods that are well-served by public transportation, and there’s a booming business building new apartment buildings, because “developers have found that now that people can’t qualify for mortgages and the ‘liar loans’ are out the window, they can still afford the rent”.  And, as always, Chicago has the biggest intermodal transportation hub in the western hemisphere, a strong airport and, despite funding problems, a vibrant transit system.

But here’s the cautionary tale. Henderson, who fought for years to close the coal plants, holds them in high esteem, because they were, at the turn of the 20th century, revolutionary technology.  Chicago and the midwest were the silicon valley of their day.

These legacies, Henderson says, “should spur us forward, as opposed to slumping down in a protectionist swoon and sucking our thumbs.”

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About Ken

Ken's the host of Chicago Newsroom. A former news director, reporter and radio program host, he's also a past Vice President of the Chicago Headline Club.
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