Hairston Excludes Sustainable Transportation Items From Budgeting Election

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A display board calling for resurfacing streets at Wednesdays budgeting expo. Photo courtesy of PBChicago.org.

The participatory budgeting process lets citizens brainstorm ideas and then vote on how ward money will be spent, but 5th Ward Alderman Leslie has decided to remove most transportation projects from consideration. The district, which includes parts of South Shore, Grand Crossing, Woodlawn and Hyde Park, is one of four wards where citizens will help decide how to use their alderman’s $1.3 million in discretionary “menu” money this year, and the only one on the South Side.

“Participatory budgeting allows the community to bring up ideas that we might not have known about otherwise,”  said 5th Ward Chief of Staff Kimberly Webb. “It’s a chance to be transparent and inclusive. Our constituents are just so enthusiastic and grateful to be part of the decision process, and Leslie really appreciates everything the community has contributed to the process.” The ward held five community assemblies last fall and winter to get ideas from residents for the budgeting ballot.

In the Far North Side’s 49th Ward, where Alderman Joe Moore first pioneered participatory budgeting in Chicago in 2010, citizens have voted to spend menu funds on a number of sustainable transportation projects. These included a new traffic/pedestrian signal, sidewalk repairs and heated ‘L’ platform shelters, plus bike lanes, paths and parking racks. Many of these projects have already been completed. Alderman John Arena’s 45th Ward, on the Northwest Side, and Alderman James Cappleman’s 46th Ward, on the North Lakefront, are currently considering sustainable transportation projects for their budgeting ballots.

The transportation committee for the 5th Ward’s budgeting process came up with 23 ideas to improve travel options in the district. These included pedestrian safety upgrades at 55th and Kenwood, near the Hyde Park Neighborhood Club; new bus shelters and concrete bus pads; improving the Lakefront Trail and multiuse paths in Jackson Park; and fixing potholes and speed humps. However, in February the committee learned that Hairston decided to designate these ideas as “service requests” that should be paid for by the Chicago Department of Transportation, the CTA and the Chicago Park District. The projects were therefore ineligible for the budgeting ballot.

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Info table for an organic garden proposal at Wednesday's budgeting expo. Photo courtesy of PBChicago.org.

“We don’t need to spend ward money on [those projects],” said Webb. “It’s gotten to the point where ward money is supposed to cover everything.” For example, she said, aldermen are expected to spend menu money on almost all neighborhood street resurfacing, except in cases where the street is opened for utility work. She said this trend toward aldermanic funds paying for basic city services started under the Richard M. Daley administration and has continued under Rahm Emanuel. Hairston is reserving $300,000 of the 5th Ward’s menu money for emergency use and repaving streets in “dire need,” Webb said.

About 50 residents took part in a participatory budgeting expo on Wednesday at the Gary Comer Youth Center, 7200 South Ingleside, showcasing the proposals that are still under consideration for the ballot. These include murals, community gardens, restoring playlot equipment, and streetlamp upgrades, plus restriping and adding reflectors to the centerline of Cornell south of 57th Street. Webb said Cornell, a six-lane roadway near the Museum of Science and Industry, is currently a dangerous street due to high-speed traffic.

The final expo will be held Saturday, April 20, from 12 – 3 p.m. at the Catholic Theological Union, 5416 South Cornell. Residents can vote early on Thursday, April 30, though Thursday, May 2, at the ward service office, 2325 East 71st.

One can sympathize with Hairston’s frustration with expectations that basic street, park, and transit infrastructure be paid for with menu money. On the other hand, participatory budgeting is supposed to be about giving citizens a voice in how their tax money is spent. It’s not a truly a democratic process when all ideas for improving walking, biking, and transit are taken off the table.

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