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In Chicago, There's Pork on the Infrastructure Menu

Aldermen choose how to use infrastructure dollars from a preapproved list of projects. The result: A big spending gap between neighborhoods.

Chicago construction infrastructure
In Chicago, alderman are given a set amount of money to spend on infrasructure projects of their choosing.
(Jose Campos/AP)
Like a lot of places, Chicago underfunds its infrastructure needs. But the way the city distributes the money it has doesn’t help either.

Each of the city’s 50 aldermen is given control of $1.32 million in so-called menu money. They’re allowed to direct that money toward the capital improvement projects of their choice. Most of the ones they pick come from a list that’s already been approved by the Chicago Department of Transportation. But it’s a scattershot approach, with aldermen tending to select the projects that have drawn the most constituent pressure.

The allocation system “bears no relationship to the actual infrastructure needs of each ward,” according to a recent audit by the city’s inspector general. Each ward has the same population size, but the square mileage varies considerably, and the less dense but larger and poorer wards on the city’s south and west sides are shortchanged. The result is a gap, relative to need, of $9.3 million between the best- and worst-funded wards. A long-term strategic plan, prioritized on a citywide basis, would provide for the best use of the taxpayers’ money, the inspector general concluded, as opposed to ladling out sums piecemeal and letting the various squeaky wheels get greased. 

The city’s elected leaders received the audit with predictable hostility. Mayor Rahm Emanuel and individual aldermen said taking infrastructure funds and handing them over to “unaccountable city bureaucrats,” in the words of Alderman Joe Moore, would make spending decisions less transparent. Moore is one of a number of aldermen who allows his residents to cast votes on potential menu money projects. “While the menu program is not the only funding for neighborhood infrastructure investments, it does allow for neighborhood-directed spending,” says Mike Claffey, director of public affairs for the Chicago Department of Transportation.  

Menu money, in short, is a classic case where political influence and a technocratic solution are at odds. Newspaper editorial writers say the approach should be scrapped altogether, and they make the point that other ways could be found to give aldermen some input into infrastructure decisions. But given the level of political resistance, no overhaul of the menu program is going to happen.

Still, there are some painful realities that must be dealt with. The city faces a funding gap of $122.9 million per year when it comes to residential infrastructure improvement needs. There simply isn’t enough money to do all the projects that might be worthwhile. Even though the situation may not change soon, the inspector general’s clarification of the true infrastructure needs in each ward could go a long way in helping to inform the next round of budget discussions.

Alan Greenblatt is a senior staff writer for Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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