Rahm tries to bridge the gap

by Beth Lawrence

Mayor Rahm Emanuel greets Chicago Department of Transportation crewmembers Tuesday at the Van Buren Bridge.  The bridge will open for traffic by Thursday at noon.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel greets Chicago Department of Transportation crewmembers Tuesday at the Van Buren Bridge.

With miles of crumbling streets and thousands of potholes still to be repaired as winter approaches, Mayor Rahm Emanuel took time out of his busy schedule Tuesday to point to one shining achievement: the Van Buren Street Bridge.

At a meet and greet with Chicago Department of Transportation crewmembers who have been working on the project, Emanuel announced that the bridge, which has been under construction since May, will reopen to traffic Thursday.

He emphasized that the $2.5 million project will be completed on budget and ahead of schedule. This bridge renovation was just one of 15 bridge-construction projects totaling $650 million since Emanuel took office in 2011, according to the Chicago Department of Transportation. The projects have ranged from as little as $2 million for the Lake Shore Drive ramp at Michigan Ave., which was completed in November 2012, to as much as $142 million for the reconstruction project at the intersection of 130th St. and Torrence, a project which began in May 2011 and is expected to continue into May 2015.

The Van Buren Bridge will open to traffic by Thursday at noon after being closed for construction since May.
The Van Buren Bridge will open to traffic by Thursday at noon after being closed for construction since May.

Other projects still in the works are removal of the Ashland Avenue viaduct over Pershing Road and reconstruction of the 35th Street pedestrian bridge.

The city also plans to begin a $5 million construction project on the 18th Street bascule bridge in December. This historic bascule bridge, or drawbridge, was constructed in 1967, making it one of the youngest of Chicago’s historic bridges. It is one of the few single-leaf bascule bridges in the city, which means it lifts in one piece rather than two.

All of these bridge repairs are part of Emanuel’s Building a New Chicago program, a $7 billion, three-year plan to improve the city’s infrastructure that began in 2012, according to the CDOT.

However, after a severe winter the city is struggling to keep up.

While the Van Buren Street Bridge may be completed early, it comes on the heels of complaints of slow or no response to unfilled potholes and other needed street repairs around the city as winter approaches.

In 2014 the city clerk’s office received 5,179 vehicle damage claims “specific to potholes,” according to City Clerk Susana Mendoza. That is double the number of claims the city processed in the previous four years combined. “That’s crazy,” Mendoza said Tuesday in a speech at the City Council budget hearing.

To deal with these issues, Emanuel included an increase in parking taxes in his proposed 2015 budget. This would be the third time the mayor has raised parking taxes. The proposal would increase taxes on parking in city garages two percentage points, to 22 from 20 percent on weekdays and to 20 from 18 percent on weekends.

The mayor said that this increase would raise $10 million, which the city would use to hire 80 employees to staff 18 additional crews for road maintenance. That would double year-round staff and allow crews to fill 1.1 million more potholes each year.