Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel will use a keynote address Thursday at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to promote the idea of courting private investors to bankroll infrastructure projects in return for a share of the profits.
The mayor's two-year-old Chicago Infrastructure Trust is about to begin its first project, a retrofit of dozens of city-owned buildings to make them more energy efficient, with the savings on utility bills going to pay back the investors.
In an interview with The Associated Press Wednesday, Emanuel said the infrastructure trust is one tool for financing public works projects as traditional sources of funding like federal grants and loans become more scarce.
"You have less money and more needs. So, into that void steps the infrastructure trust," he said. "Everybody's trying to think outside the traditional box while federal support is diminishing."
The two-day forum is being hosted by MIT's Center for Advanced Urbanism and will bring together political leaders, engineers, design professionals and academics to discuss ways cities are rethinking infrastructure investment.
Besides innovative financing mechanisms, panelists will discuss ways of making urban areas more resistant to unforeseen environmental and economic calamities.
Emanuel's infrastructure trust is about to conclude a $12.2 million deal with Bank of America to make 60 public buildings more energy efficient. Sites include city libraries and buildings housing police, health care and other facilities. Officials say it will reduce energy use by 18 percent, a savings of roughly $1.4 million a year.
The mayor said maintaining robust infrastructure investment has helped Chicago attract businesses and improve the city's quality of life.
Alan Berger, the research director for the center at MIT, says the Chicago project represents is a bid by cities to take control of their own challenges rather than depending on funds to trickle down through a slow federal bureaucracy.
"It basically says we should act. We shouldn't wait," he said.
The Center for Advanced Urbanism has been involved in projects that include a plan to redevelop the Meadowlands in New Jersey after Hurricane Sandy and make that area more resistant to coastal storms while clearing the way for new real estate and a large park.