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The Magazine

Urban infrastructure

Chicago’s Mayor Rahm Emanuel: His kind of town

With a focus on people as well as pipes, the mayor of Chicago has made investment in infrastructure improvements a hallmark of his tenure. We met Rahm Emanuel for an exclusive interview about the links between jobs, transportation and infrastructure investment.

Rahm Emanuel knows politics. He’s served as a US Congressman from Illinois, as chief of staff in the White House of President Barack Obama and, for the past six years, as Mayor of Chicago. He also knows a thing or two about running a city. During his tenure, Chicago has been named the number one city in the USA for corporate relocations three years in a row, and the number one city for foreign investment four years in a row. 

The Magazine: Do you consider job creation to be your number one job?

Rahm Emanuel: It will no doubt come as a shock when the mayor of Chicago says he doesn’t create jobs, but I don’t. The private sector does that on a sustainable basis. But what we do is make key investments in universities, talent, and in improving the quality of life. My economic strategy comes down to four Ts: talent, transportation, technology, and transparency. If we do those things really well, the private sector has the confidence to invest in job creation. At the end of the day, that’s how you’re going to grow the economy on a sustainable basis. 

You’ve talked about the challenge of building a 21st-century city on a 20th-century foundation. What do you mean by that?

Our roads were a set of potholes, our public transportation was a series of slow zones where you were going 15 miles per hour [24 km/h] when the train should have been going 50 [80 km/h]. Our [train] stations were antiquated. Those are clear examples of why our economy was not growing at its potential.

Infrastructure investments make Chicago more competitive, explains Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

I have to be honest, your employer doesn’t want you to start work when you show up to work, they want you to start work when you’re on your way to work. And companies want to know their workers can get to work on time. So about a third of our trains stations are being rebuilt top to bottom, and we’ve replaced close to 70 miles [112 km] of rail line. We’ve eliminated 20 minutes out of our slow zones. We’ve installed 4G on all our public transportation systems; we were the first city to go completely 4G. The train is the new office.

In my first [four-year] term, we rebuilt 1,200 miles [1,930 km] of roads, and we’re going to do it again this term. All those investments make Chicago more competitive.

Those improvements don’t come cheap.

Some people think I’ve lost my mind as far as infrastructure investment is concerned. We’re on a US$ 5 billion capitalization of our CTA [Chicago Transit Authority, which includes trains and buses], US$ 4.8 billion for our water system, US$ 2.5 billion for schools. At O’Hare and Midway [Chicago’s two international airports], we’re investing close to US$ 10 billion. 

That’s a lot of investment in old-fashioned infrastructure!

I don’t think policy people talk about infrastructure the same way the public talks and thinks about their infrastructure. Infrastructure is a great policy term, but to the public, it’s about getting to and from work. It’s their kids’ schools and their playgrounds. I consider infrastructure to include the US$ 270 million on our parks system with all-new playgrounds. We’re investing about US$ 1.6 billion in new capital in the schools, US$ 700 million of additions where there is over-crowding.

I don’t think policy people talk about infrastructure the same way the public talks and thinks about their infrastructure.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel

If we are offering more bus services or train services, you can spend more time with your kids before they go to school. That is not, I’ll guarantee you, what is being talked about in any policy meeting. I think policy people would be more effective if they did that, but they choose not to do that and I know because I’ve been in a lot of policy discussions in the city of Chicago and the White House.

My job, as an elected official, is to help people understand what we’re doing in terms of how they lead their lives. 

You are retrofitting the city’s water pumping stations from steam turbines and boilers to energy-efficient electric pumps, a project in which Siemens is involved. That saves the city money. But how do you make people understand that it’s just as important as improvements to their local playground? 

We’re rebuilding the entire water system. We’re replacing 900 miles [1,450 km] of water pipes and 670 miles [1,080 km] of sewer pipe and all 167,000 catch basins. I told people we would raise water rates, but if we don’t do it, we’ll replace the entire system by 2054, one break at a time. And I guaranteed a certain number of minorities would be getting jobs (rebuilding the water system) by getting into the trades. We weren’t just replacing pipe, we were giving people skills at the same time. Giving skills to your residents isn’t something the policy shops would think about as infrastructure.

It sounds like you’re saying that, conceptually, infrastructure isn’t pipes – it’s people.

You have to understand how people lead their lives. For example, we’re going to put 18,000 people to work for a decade. That’s a big win. And guess what, people get a new road with it. Are they excited about their road being ripped up? No. But they are excited when it’s all said and done – they see a visible benefit. They see a new school in their neighborhood, and they see a visible benefit. A better train station and a new train, because we’re replacing all our rail cars, that’s a big win for them. 

Without those types of improvements, I’m guessing it would be more difficult to maintain your population and grow economically.

Here’s an example. We took an old rail line, the 606, and created a walkway connecting four distinct communities, and property values have shot through the roof. It’s kept people in the city longer, because the schools around there are improving, so it has a ripple effect through the rest of the economy.

How will cities be different in 20 years?

Cities will be a lot younger. People want housing near where they work, and don’t want to own their house. Also, quality of life will be more important. We need more recreation in cities. We went from the 10th-best bike city to the number one bike city in America; we just got the award from Cycle Magazine. We’re building a 40-acre [16-hectare] dirt bike park; we’re investing in our riverfront. 

That’s what I mean by building a 21st-century city on a 20th-century foundation. Today, infrastructure is not just an airport, not just a road, it’s not just public transportation. Twenty-first-century infrastructure is everything from getting to and from work to enjoying your neighborhood.

Ron French is a freelance journalist based in Okemos, Michigan