Chicago will spend its federal dollars on shoreline protection, improving broadband networks and the pipes that deliver your water.
Infrastructure in Chicago goes beyond trains, highways and bridges. Today, it also means pushing back against climate change, expanding broadband internet access and replacing hundreds of lead water pipes.
Because the city is nestled along 22 miles of Lake Michigan shoreline, climate change is now demanding urgent action with an alarming rise in water levels.
Despite a record low set in 2013, water levels along the city shoreline increased more than 6 feet in just seven years. Although levels peaked in late 2020, Lake Michigan is still 22 inches above its average level, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers data shows.
In January, the agency allocated $1.5 million from the Biden administration’s Infrastructure Investment & Jobs Act to the Chicago Shoreline Storm Damage Reduction Project, which specifically addresses strengthening the shoreline against erosion caused by extreme water level swings that in recent years have led to downtown flooding, overtopping of the Chicago River, flooding of Jean-Baptiste Pointe DuSable Lake Shore Drive and water crashing up the sides of lakeside apartment buildings and structures.
The federal funding arrived at the urging of Illinois Democrats who demanded increased attention to “one of Chicago’s most valuable assets,” U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin said in January. “As the shoreline continues to face environmental threats from extreme weather and erosion, it’s more important than ever that we take real steps toward protecting it,” he said. The funding is in addition to the $185 million Durbin helped direct to the shoreline project over the last 20 years.
The delicate balance between Lake Michigan and the Chicago River is at the heart of the challenge, such as when the backup system that sends river water into the lake during storms fails, elevating lake levels.
Since January 2020, when 20-foot waves and 50 mph winds slapped against the shore, the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago has approved $1.5 million for repairs along the lakefront near Morgan Shoal between 47th and 51st streets to prevent further erosion and protect Lake Shore Drive from damaging waves.
It didn’t end there. In September 2020, the water reclamation district and the Chicago Department of Transportation helped fund the Army Corps of Engineers’ work to build 20-foot-wide, 800-foot-long concrete barriers to protect part of the lakefront trail. The work was completed last May.
Also, last spring, Lightfoot announced she was allocating $12.3 million to reconstruct a mile of lakeshore encompassing Morgan Shoal, a 32-acre aquatic wildlife preserve that sits about 300 feet offshore from Hyde Park.
Closing the digital divide
Seeking to improve everyone’s access to the internet, the White House included funding in the infrastructure bill for broadband expansion. In Cook County, 24% of residents lack high-speed connections and 43% of households are unconnected, according to county data. In fact, the number of homes in the county lacking internet access is equal to that of all rural Illinois.
The incoming federal money aims to change that. Illinois is expected to receive at least $100 million to deliver broadband coverage to about 228,000 people in the state. The money will also make 2.9 million people, or 23% of the state’s population, eligible for a benefit that helps low-income families get online.
The issue of internet connectivity is one that is already a priority of the current administration in Springfield. Gov. J.B. Pritzker launched a $400 million statewide initiative in late 2019 to expand broadband access through special grants. An additional $20 million was used to support the Illinois Century Network, a high-speed broadband network that serves K-12 public-school students, museums, public libraries, local governments and higher education institutions. The network owns or leases about 2,100 miles of fiber-optic cables running throughout the state.
A special program in 2020 raised $50 million to provide free high-speed internet to more than 100,000 public-school students who live primarily on the South and West sides. Citadel CEO Ken Griffin donated $7.5 million, with other philanthropic organizations, including the Crown Family Philanthropies, the Joyce Foundation and former President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama, contributing the rest.
Getting the lead out
Under the new federal infrastructure law, Illinois will receive about $288 million to replace nearly 400,000 lead service lines and other water-related programs. Illinois has the highest number of lead service lines in the country, based on data from the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Chicago has the most lead pipes in the state and more than any city in the U.S. Lead service lines that carry drinking water can leach a dangerous neurotoxin that is damaging to the brain, among other maladies.
The federal infrastructure funding is only a drop in the bucket. The city says it will cost nearly $9 billion to replace all the pipes. Progress since Lightfoot announced a plan to replace about 600 lines by 2021 has been slow. The federal money is expected to help pick up the pace, although state law passed last year gives Chicago up to 50 years to complete the job.