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The Associated Press April 25, 2012, 10:49AM ET

Chicago aldermen approve $7B infrastructure plan

The Chicago City Council on Tuesday approved a plan to use public-private partnerships to finance an ambitious $7 billion program to overhaul the city's aging infrastructure.

Chicago aldermen voted 41-7 to approve the Chicago Infrastructure Trust program, which includes plans to replace crumbling commuter rail stations and century-old water pipes to building new airport runways and parks.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced the multibillion-dollar plan in February, saying Chicago would go ahead with projects without waiting for federal assistance or raising taxes. The trust will start with $225 million in energy efficiency projects for government buildings.

Emanuel has touted the plan as a signature initiative, saying it will help in the effort to rebuild a city badly in need of a makeover. Prior to Tuesday's vote, he noted that the concept of an infrastructure bank or trust has been debated in Washington for the last decade.

"They're still debating it. I won't tie the city's future to (Washington's) dysfunction," Emanuel said of failure to pass a federal transportation bill. "Working together, we have a tool here that takes some of the pressure off of our taxpayers. That's what we're doing."

Among its projects, the city plans to renovate more than 100 transit stations, spend $290 million on expanding parklands and transform the Chicago River -- which once flowed with sewage and industrial waste -- into a haven for kayakers.

It will also spend $1.4 billion on two new runways at O'Hare International Airport by 2015 and $660 million on public schools. The city will replace 900 miles of water pipes that are more than a century old and 750 miles of sewer line. The roads above them will also be repaved. Highlighting the need, Emanuel said more than 3,800 water pipes burst last year.

Some urban planners and policy experts were skeptical that remaking a city on such a grand scale could be pulled off without either raising taxes or privatizing major pieces of infrastructure, as former Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley did with the Chicago Skyway and the city's parking meter system.

DePaul University transportation specialist Joseph Schwieterman said that while he applauds Emanuel for telling the public to brace for change, he hasn't talked much about the pain that may cause, including increased user fees.

The City Council on Tuesday rejected alternative proposals from aldermen who remain skeptical about the plan. One of those alternative plans would have required the council's approval of all Trust-funded projects, set aside 1 percent of the nonprofit's operating budget for oversight and empower Inspector General Joe Ferguson to investigate the Trust.

"It's not free money. It's gonna come to us in user fees and taxes," said Alderman Leslie Hairston. "Things that will add to the burden the city is already imposing, we're gonna saddle them with."

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