Entries in Infrastructure (2)


Chicago Invests $7 Billion to Fix Crumbling Infrastructure 

Scott Olson/Getty Images(CHICAGO) -- Gridlock and dysfunction in Washington, coupled with the aftereffects of U.S. economic malaise, have spurred cities like Chicago to take matters into their own hands when it comes to rebuilding crumbling infrastructure.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who knows a thing or two about Washington’s incompetence after working in Congress and the White House for more than a decade, this week unveiled a new $7 billion infrastructure plan that he believes will create 30,000 jobs in the next three years.

“Whether it’s renewing our parks or repairing our pipes, repaving our roads or rebuilding our rails, retrofitting our buildings or revitalizing our bridges, we must restore Chicago’s core,” Emanuel said Thursday in unveiling the plan, called “Building a new Chicago.”

The project is an ambitious one, designed to address flaws underground, on land and in the skies above the city: renovate, repair or rebuild more than 100 bus and train stations; create the first 16 miles of a rapid transit bus route; open two new runways at the city’s O’Hare airport; acquire 180 new acres of parklands; build 20 new playgrounds and 12 new parks; replace 900 miles of water pipes; modernize public schools and colleges; and retrofit city buildings to reduce their energy consumption.

That all sounds well and good. But how can America’s third-largest city embark on such a sprawling plan without receiving federal help or raising taxes? The answer lies in the private sector.

“Nobody is looking to Washington to be a savior anymore,” Joseph Schwieterman, a transportation specialist at DePaul University in Chicago, said. “During the recession, the federal government was seen as an important financier, but the stimulus is over and it’s obvious the federal government isn’t going to be able to provide as much as it once did. So now the mayor wants to bring private firms to the table in Chicago to run the city more like a business."

“He’s not using the word ‘privatization’, but there’s an element that’s similar to that, where a firm may, for instance, manage City Hall for a fee and in the process lower the electric bill and custodial costs. It’s exciting, but we all know the devil is in the details.”

Under the new arrangement, a non-profit fund known as the Chicago Infrastructure Trust -- unveiled last month with former President Bill Clinton in attendance -- will employ the resources and experience of the private sector to address Chicago’s public infrastructure problems.

“This model of private financing for public infrastructure is happening all over the world, but not here in America,” Emanuel noted.

Robert Puentes, director of the metropolitan infrastructure initiative at the Brookings Institution, praised Chicago’s aggressive approach.

“People understand that the city’s infrastructure needs to be fixed, especially when compared to other countries and their modern airports,” Puentes said. “People also understand that on a national level the federal government is not promising a lot of money to rain down on cities and states and metropolitan areas, so cities like Chicago are now starting to devise their own plans for how they’re going to make these big broad investments in infrastructure."

With states and cities across the country slashing their budgets and scrapping essential services in a desperate effort to merely stay afloat, Chicago’s project stands out as especially impressive. Emanuel made it clear that he has no intention of waiting around for help from the federal or state government.

“We can’t allow dysfunction, whether in Washington or [state capital] Springfield, to delay our economic development,” he stated.

Analysts such as Puentes and Schwieterman predict that it won’t be long before other cities follow Chicago’s lead, assuming the project here goes well.

“The frustration for cities comes from the fact that Washington doesn’t do anything -- they get in the way and they’re not being supportive. There’s a recognition of that,” Puentes said. “Many other metropolitan areas are watching what’s going on in Chicago and their successes and failures are really going to resound in the rest of the country. Chicago is first out of the box, but they won’t be the last.”

Schwieterman agreed. “I think other cities have no choice but to follow suit,”  he said. “We can’t rely on government to dig us out of the hole -- we’ve got to find new sources of revenue. It’s a new reality.”

But that is not to say there are not risks involved in Chicago’s plan. In the past, the city has suffered from public-private partnership projects gone wrong, such as the fiasco that has resulted from a 2008 deal that leased Chicago’s parking meters for 75 years to a private company. It now costs Chicago drivers a whopping $5.75 an hour to park downtown during peak hours.

Puentes said, “The public is right to wonder if this sounds too good to be true.  We could certainly do more with less, like realizing some savings through reforms, but private investors are profit-driven -- that’s why they’re in this game -- so in order to do this you have to figure out a way to pay them back with interest or figure out how they benefit from certain investments."

“The danger is falling into the trap that it’s free money,” he said. “It’s certainly not.”

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio


Earthquake: East Coast Cities Not Prepared, Say Experts

Stockbyte/Thinkstock(STANFORD, Calif.) -- Eastern earthquakes, such as the 5.8 magnitude quake that hit Tuesday, are rare. There has not been a quake this strong in Virginia since 1897. "I can't remember an event that large on the East Coast," said Paul Segall, a Stanford geophysicist who studies earthquake faults. He called Tuesday's shaker "a significant earthquake for that part of the world. It could do significant damage."

But the bad news: Even smaller quakes could cause damage, because East Coast cities aren't as earthquake-ready as their West Coast counterparts.

A magnitude 4.5 shaker hit the area in 2003.

"Basically, the building stock in the Eastern part of the United States is not built for seismic shaking like we are in California," he said. "For that reason alone, we would expect more damage."

Asked where the vulnerabilities lie, he said, "The kinds of buildings we would worry about are unreinforced masonry: unreinforced brick or unreinforced stone or concrete that doesn't have enough rebar in it."

States along the Pacific Coast have strong rules for what buildings must be able to withstand. Newer buildings in California are buttressed but also designed to sway instead of snap if the ground shakes beneath them.

Older Eastern cities -- such as New York, Washington, Philadelphia and Boston -- have many more buildings made of brick, which can crumble in a violent earthquake. There's been no impetus to upgrade them.

Around Washington, D.C., where there was significant shaking and many evacuations, there's "a lot of old brick buildings built before anybody worried about those kinds of things," Segall said.

"People haven't invested in retrofitting as we have in California," he said.

For cities along the East Coast and in the Midwest, which had some of the historically strongest quakes that occurred in 1811-12 along the New Madrid fault, forcing the Mississippi River to begin flowing north for a while, Tuesday's quake may be "a good warning."

Disaster plans for most East Coast cities are less focused on quakes than other potential disasters.

"It's not good," said Dr. Irwin Redlener, director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness. "Because resources are limited, because emergency agencies have had to make budget cuts, they have to make tough choices and plan for what's most likely.

"In California, that would mean focusing on earthquakes," he said. "In New York, that would mean worrying about coastal storms and terrorist attacks.

"But that doesn't mean there's no chance of something else happening. You're picking and choosing what to plan for. And essentially, you're taking a shot."

Some 80 million to 90 million Americans are estimated by the U.S. Geological Survey to live in seismically active areas. But the Eastern United States is very different from the West. Its faults are older and the shaking can be felt further away from the epicenter.

Among the most significant U.S. quakes outside the West Coast was the Cape Ann, Mass., earthquake of Nov. 18, 1755, with an estimated magnitude of 6.0 to 6.3. It knocked down chimneys and stone fences and produced the most damage around Cape Ann and in Boston, especially in a landfill around the city wharfs. It could be felt from Halifax, Nova Scotia, south to the Chesapeake Bay. People aboard a ship 200 miles off the coast of Cape Ann felt the quake and feared they had run aground.

A magnitude 5.4 earthquake struck western Ohio on March 9, 1937, cracking a schoolhouse, breaking chimneys and walls, reducing the output of oil and gas wells and creating new springs where old springs had run dry. That shaker could be felt in tall buildings of Chicago, Milwaukee and Toronto, as well as in Kentucky, Michigan, Missouri, Pennsylvania and West Virginia.

On Tuesday, hospitals around the earthquake region contacted by ABC News did not report injuries. But they often seemed puzzled when asked, "Did you feel it?"

"YES! In Morgantown, W.V.," went one emailed answer. "Never felt anything like that before...all shook up!"

"We felt the tremor in Columbia, S.C.," said another. "I was sitting at my desk and felt the quake. It was weird."

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio

ABC News Radio