Thursday, April 02, 2009

Revised Central Area Action Plan Seeks to raid Chicago's massive TIF piggy bank

Chicago's Central Area Action Plan is back, and it's taking no prisoners. An amended update of the original 2003 plan is now nearing completion. It offers an enthralling overview of the challenges and potential of the city center, even as it raises a terrifying spectre of bottomless pork barrel megaprojects leaching onto Chicago's corrupt Tax Increment Financing system to bleed the city's finances dry.

The inflation of estimates and ambition over just six years is staggering. According to the 2003 plan, "The total cost of transportation improvements over 20 years will be between $2.25 and $3.5 billion in capital in investment." In the 2009 revision, that figure is now over $13 billion.

The 2003 plan correctly predicted - who knew? - that the huge Central Loop TIF would actually be allowed to expire, and didn't see much future in TIF financing:
Fourteen other TIF districts exist within the boundaries of the Central Area. Of these, four - Chicago/Kingsbury, River West, Near South, and Canal/Congress - are structured to permit funding of transportation. But the amount of increment generated within these districts is limited, so they would not be major sources of revenue.
Flash forward to 2009, and the CAAP folks, like Paul on the road to Damascus, have undergone a revelation:
Tax Increment Financing could serve as a source of funding for capital projects within the Central Area. Although it might not cover all of the City’s local share of costs, TIF can provide a source of funding for initial activities, such as preliminary engineering or site preparation.

The established TIF districts will remain essential to funding the recommendations of the CAAP. They should be protected, expanded, and aggressively used in a coordinated way to ensure a secure funding framework. (emphasis mine)

A useful statutory feature of TIF districts is the ability to share revenues among contiguous districts, to accommodate large-scale projects that may exceed a given year’s incremental revenue collection or that may span multiple districts. Of the nineteen TIF districts located in the Central Area, sixteen districts are contiguous. The sum of total budgets for the Central Area TIF districts over their twenty three year life spans is $3.2 billion."

The CAAP recommends focusing TIF spending on major public works projects.
The revised CAAP marks the final transformation of TIF's from a vehicle for helping re-invigorate depressed urban districts to a gigantic, largely unaccountable slush-fund-in-perpetuity for financing money pit boondoggles like the proposed $3 billion Clinton Street subway and a $2 billion West Loop Transportation Center that would burrow commuters like moles up to four levels below the street. Of questionable value and utility, they threaten to become Chicago's version of Boston's Big Dig, which went from initial estimates of $2.8 billion and wound up at $14.6 billion and counting. And if you think I'm being alarmist, remember this is the city of the transit "superstation" under Block 37, where, as cost overruns hit $100 million, the CTA chose simply to write off the quarter billion spent to date and walk away, leaving behind a project that was half-finished and unusable. Other parts of the new CAAP seem nothing less than hallucinatory, such as a proposed subway running under Monroe street from The Loop to Union and Ogilvie stations that the CAAP actually thinks can be done for $200 million.

There are, however, a lot of great things in the plan, which I hope to discuss in much more detail in the not too distant future, and some of them are very reasonably priced. Two projects I discussed last week - the re-greening of Congress Street as a "Signature Parkway" and the reopening of Queen's Landing - get major play in the CAAP. Without resorting to one of Bob O'Neill's pricey gossamer bridges, "Pedestrian mobility between Buckingham Fountain and the Lake will be restored. An at-grade street crossing is preferred." Estimated cost: $500,000.

For residents of River North and the Fulton River District, the plan will be presented at a community meeting put on by 42nd ward alderman Brendan Reilly, tonight, Thursday, April 2nd, from 6:00 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. at the Erie Cafe, 536 West Erie.

For the rest of us, you can view the original 2003 plan on the City of Chicago's website here, and courtesy of David Roeder and Fran Spielman and the Chicago Sun-Times, you can download this year's revision here. Compare and discuss.


Anonymous said...

I went to the meeting tonight. Benet Haller presented 42nd ward related projects from the Central Area Action Plan. Lots'O transit, and open space presented. Haller did soften the Kennedy Cap Project by saying that it could just be some nice street scape improvements that would mask the noise and enhance the pedestrian environment for west LOOP residents and visitors crossing the Expressway - that would probably cost significantly less thatn the $100,000,000 proposed for that project. Most interesting was Alderman Reilly's comment that the Plan Commision wanted to vote on the Central Area Action Plan during the April Plan Commission meeting but the Alderman of the four wards impacted by the plan, (the 42nd being the most) wanted to have public review and comment before the Plan Commission adoption vote.
Alderman Reilly announced that there will be additional 42nd ward meetings for residents to voice their opinions, (as well as other ward meetings. For 42nd ward meeting information check the Alderman's website:
Benet Haller said the Transportation section has been updated so if you downloaded yesterday you need to go to the City website for the latest. Benet also said the City really wants Public input on the Central Area Action Plan so read the plan and go to the meetings or per Alderman Reilly, email him with your comments.

Anonymous said...

So you don't think mass transit investments are a good thing?

You have done nothing but pay a bit of lip service to the usual "it's pork barrel spending!" mantra that always gets your average Joe fired up.

There are a lot of complex issues involved with the CAAP that deserve more thought than to just blow it off as you just did. What do you think makes a great city like Chicago tick? Mass transit. It's important to recognize that the Block 37 superstation is very different from these other planned projects, and according to some transit insiders it actually wasn't a complete waste of money. A bit more analysis of this issue would reveal, for example, that the city rushed to build the Block 37 "superstation" because a massive multilevel retail, office, and hotel complex was about to get built above, and thus waiting would have been far more costly. The Block 37 "superstation" allows for a badly needed connection between the Red and Blue Lines. You see, your average Joe "complain and ignore the details", "if it's underground then it doesn't exist" type simply doesn't understand that--but a blogger like yourself really should explore these details beyond the superficial if you're going to post about them.

Keep griping about "pork" and you'll be sure to get your average Joe's to agree with you. But if you ask me, you should just stick to discussing architecture instead of a topic which you appear to know little about.

Lynn Becker said...

I think mass transit investments are more than a good thing: they are an essential thing. That's the West Loop Transportation Center must be nipped in the bud.

You bring up the Block 37 Superstation. Good. It's a perfect example of how NOT to do transit improvements.

Let's put aside, for the moment, that I've never had anyone offer up a valid explanation of why you would want to put a red line/blue line crossover at what is probably the most ludicrously expensive place to put it. Let's say, for purpose of argument, that it was a good idea. What you seem to have missed is that IT'S BEEN ABANDONED. Why? Because after sinking hundreds of millions of dollars in the superstation, the overruns were so out of control that the city and CTA saw the only way to avoid complete triage was to just walk away. So those hundreds of millions accomplished - nothing. No crossing, no superstation, just a massive boondongle.

Meantime, the Washington station on the Red Line, which would have cost a small fraction of the superstation and was projected to have been finished by now, lies - closed, abandoned and rotting.

Massive spending resulting in nothing. Worthwhile projects left fundless in their wake. The only ones who benefited were the connected contractors. If that isn't pork, what is?

And, by the way, Block 37 as actually built isn't that massive. It just looks that way because another pork barrel boondongle demolished the entire block and then spent tens of millions of dollars to have the entire thing remain an empty lot, providing NO tax revenue, for nearly two decades. There have been much larger developments throughout city, and somehow they didn't require a "superstation" to serve them.

There are a lot of buses going down Clinton, but does anyone really believe the gridlock is so bad as to require a multi billion dollar replacement? For the projected cost of the West Transportation Center - and believe me, if it ever went into construction, it would become Chicago's Big Dig, with cost overrruns in the billions - we could build an entire Circle Line to connect Michigan Avenue to McCormick Place and the commuter stations, and get all those express buses off the street.

The complete reconstruction of 16 stations on the Brown Line cost only half a billion. With the money committed to the Transportation Center, all of the often hideously decrepit stations on the Loop L could get makeovers, you could create the Circle Line, extend the Orange Line to Ford City, and other projects that would benefit the entire city for less than this misconceived subway will cost.

That's why anyone who follows how things get done in Chicago knows CAAP's grandiose ideas like the West Loop Transportation Center would be a direct assault on comprehensive project funding throughout the city, and would suck up precious, finite dollars like an insatiable sponge.

neroden@gmail said...

Here's the thing. Part of the West Loop Transportation Center is a good idea. It originated from several different projects.

(1) Through tracks for electrified high-speed-rail/Amtrak/Metra trains to run through from north to south, stopping -- and preferably able to switch to both sets of northern tracks. There is the one through track at Union Station, but that's very limited.
(2) Extra platform capacity for Union Station, which is nearly full at the south side. This is closely related to the need for through tracks (which have more capacity).
(3) Isolated bus or taxi stop for Union Station, avoiding the complete clogging of Canal Street. It wouldn't pull all the buses and taxis off, but enough to let the traffic and pedestrians move again; moving *one* of city buses, long distance buses, and taxis off the street would do the trick.
(4) Enclosed, straightforward walking/wheelchair connection between Oglivie, Union Station, Clinton St. Blue Line, and Clinton St. Green Line. Just plain good idea.

Somehow the three of these got combined with a really half-baked Clinton St. Subway Red Line proposal into a four-story monster involving a full-length underground busway. Worse, it's unclear from the plan how HSR/Metra/Amtrak trains from the south are going to get into the West Loop Transportation Center. (The northern approach is straightforward.)

I think a seriously scaled back version of the scheme would have a lot of merit. Two stories, one for walking and possibly with a *short* bus or taxi tunnel, one for electrified HSR/Metra/Amtrak (after the southern approach is solved).

Lynn Becker said...

Thanks neroden@gmail for your perceptive comments, all of which make sense, as does your prescription: decoupling the beneficial aspects of the proposal from the toxic Clinton Street subway

neroden@gmail said...

"There are a lot of buses going down Clinton, but does anyone really believe the gridlock is so bad as to require a multi billion dollar replacement?"

Yes. The key points you're missing are: the added gridlock on Canal; the gridlock induced at Oglivie and Union stations; the need for connectivity between said stations and between them and the Green and Blue lines (partly to relieve said gridlock); and the capacity restriction, and through-running restriction, at Union Station.

The West Loop Transportation Center is driven by the needs of Union Station and intercity and commuter rail, and the need for local service to connect to that service much better.

It has somehow ballooned to at least twice the size it needs to be. The intercity/commuter/high-speed rail level will be sorely needed (and there is no cheaper way of doing it which wouldn't be extremely unpopular); the pedestrian/travelator walkway, free of level crossings at cross streets, has been sorely needed for a long time (and it's easier to build a pedestrian tunnel than to put dive-under humps in all the cross streets, though that would be prettier).

As long as you're digging two levels below the street, you might as well dig a really big hole to leave room for future expansion, and you might as well try to solve the bus/taxi crowding problem on Clinton and Canal. (Though I believe that ought to fit on the pedestrian level, that would probably only allow for one direction of travel for buses/taxis.)

But I really can't see what the CTA line is doing there. Perhaps some desire to connect the Red Line as well as the Blue and Green lines, but it seems exorbitantly wasteful to add a *fourth* level to a three-level underground project. Unless the State Street Subway has hit capacity and needs a bypass, but the proposal wouldn't solve that problem if so.

I guess I'm saying, try for a scaled-back West Loop Transportation Center, rather than killing the baby (better intercity/commuter/Amtrak/high-speed rail service and connectivity between that service and the CTA) with the bathwater (an overbuilt design).

neroden@gmail said...

Sorry to repeat myself. :-)

Unknown said...

After reading this blog and several others about transportation issues, I'm beginning to believe that, in the case of Chicago, geology is destiny -- one never knows what to expect anywhere when one starts digging into the substrates that underlies the central city.

Building subways in Manhattan required both a cut-and-fill in the "soft" parts of the island and dynamited tunneling in the "hard" part So Manhattan now has a downtown business district and a midtown district based on the ability of the geology to easily support tall buildings.

Other examples that I am familiar with: tunneling in Sydney requires only a machine that can manage sandstone. The tunnel between England and France had to deal with the soft limestone material known as chalk. Both were/are problems but can be dealt with.

Then there is our fair city. When the first tall buildings were built in Chicago, they were "floated" over the muck on wooden rafts. Newer technology allowed a building to built on stilts that extended down to the underlying bedrock. If you watched the Trump building go up as I did, you know how much time elapsed after the foundation was laid and when the building started to grow.

Then there's Millennium Park, what did they find when they were trying to build the foundations for the superstructure supporting the parking garage and the rooftop park? Rubble from the Chicago fire which apparently was great for supporting railroad tracks but not so good for supporting a complex steel and concrete structure.

The bedrock is down there and solid but it's also a long way down and not much use for building a below ground transportation system.

A personal note which may explain this post. Digging a foundation for a new building, we found the water level was two feet higher than it was across the street. Uh??