The coronavirus pandemic has now left the city, the state and the nation with a whopping economic problem: tens of millions of jobs lost and the threat of even more disruption if a second virus wave strikes in the fall or winter.
While Congress has ized trillions of dollars in relief for lost business and paychecks, infrastructure spending has so far been left out. That's despite the legacy of job creation from decades ago, a crying need today to fix crumbling roads, bridges, electrical grids, transit and water systems, and President Donald Trump's on-again, off-again advocacy for a big national construction push. Even before the pandemic, his administration's sporadic announcements of "Infrastructure Weeks" had become a running national joke.
In modern parlance, infrastructure spending is a "twofer" in tough times that can be used to both put people to work and create a lasting, needed public good. So why is it such a big lift in these troubled times?
"It's surprising under the circumstances that there wouldn't be a big push in that direction," says historian Robert McElvaine of Millsaps College in Mississippi and of "The Great Depression: America, 1929-1941." "On the other hand, the fact there isn't one coming from Trump isn't particularly surprising."
Given all the Infrastructure Week declarations, that might seem a counterintuitive conclusion. But Trump's inaction is a nod to the polarized climate of Washington and fallout from the tea party movement of a decade ago that led conservatives to complain loudly about infrastructure spending under former President Barack Obama.
"Republicans are torn on this issue," explains E.J. Fagan, an expert on how parties influence policy and an incoming member of the political science faculty at the University of Illinois at Chicago. "Republicans developed an ideological objection to distributive federal spending in general—taking money, bringing it out to districts and doing projects," beginning in the mid-2000s.
It was, in part, a reaction to public outrage over high-profile pork barrel projects such as Alaska's "Bridge to Nowhere," a proposal to build a $400 million span to replace a ferry that connected Ketchikan to an island with an airport but just 50 residents. Republicans backed the project before they came to oppose it, and that opposition only grew by the time of Obama's stimulus push to respond to the Great Recession.
Cost, regional jealousies and disagreements over what is and isn't worthy of public expenditure also hamstring any agreement.
Many Democrats want green projects like a national renewable energy grid and a de-emphasis on fossil fuels to aid in the fight against climate change, something Trump and many Republicans consider a hoax.
"Those priorities are highly partisan and there is intense disagreement," Fagan says.
There were also intense regional and partisan divides in the 1930s, but Roosevelt's New Deal managed to bridge them by giving something to everybody—sometimes alienating conservative Democrats and partnering with a now-extinct breed of progressive Republicans.
Rural areas were electrified and received new post offices, art and park beautification. Big cities like Chicago got that, too, but also public transit and airport money. A modern compromise might include similar spending on needed schools, hospitals or community centers and the expansion of broadband access to digital deserts.
But Fagan says massive infrastructure spending might be ill-suited to address some of the sudden unemployment shocks of the current recession.
"I think it's implausible (hospitality workers) are going to go build highways in two months" like Works Progress Administration workers might have in the '30s, he explains.
Historians and economists still debate whether credit for ending the Depression belongs to New Deal spending or World War II. But there's no argument the alphabet soup of public programs created under Roosevelt left a lasting impact.
African American and immigrant workers laid off from Chicago's meatpacking plants and steel and rail yards became part of the 2.5 million-strong Civilian Conservation Corps, planting trees, conserving soil and building trails across the country.
Meanwhile, the WPA employed tens of thousands of Chicagoans building highways, bridges, parks, public buildings and transit projects.
Midway Airport, then known as the Municipal Airport of Chicago, used WPA funds to expand and add new runways and move railroad tracks. The Skokie Lagoons were the product of a 10-year conservation program split between the CCC and the WPA.
Dozens of pieces of art—from murals at Chicago public schools and post offices to sculptures at West Side medical buildings—were New Deal-funded, as was the early radio career of legendary Chicago Studs Terkel through the WPA's Federal Writers' Project.
Chicago's once independent parks, insolvent in the early 1930s, were consolidated as part of the New Deal to become the district we know today, helping to expand Lincoln Park sixfold and improve Palmer Park, Portage Park and Northerly Island.
New Deal emergency relief wasn't perfect. Wages were extremely low. "They had to pay less than they'd gotten if they were employed privately, and in the midst of double-digit unemployment, wages in the private sector were very low," historian McElvaine says. African American workers faced discrimination and were often given the most menial jobs. The national WPA declared non-citizen workers should be dropped from the rolls in 1939.
In January, back when the economy was still booming, Congress held hearings on proposed funding mechanisms to chip away at the U.S. Department of Transportation's estimated $900 billion investment backlog for highways, bridges and transit alone.
Potential solutions included a hike in the federal gas tax or a new charge for vehicle miles traveled, a controversial proposal that would help raise more revenue from drivers of fuel-efficient and electric vehicles that sip no gas.
Many Republicans, especially those who signed a no-tax-increase pledge, are wary of both. They say they are loath to drive up the national deficit, despite backing a $2 trillion tax cut package in 2017 and $3 trillion in COVID-related stimulus in recent weeks.
"I think it's been analogized by (Treasury Secretary Steven) Mnuchin: The federal government's response to COVID is nine innings. We might be at inning four or five right now," says U.S. Rep. Darin LaHood, a Peoria Republican.
Any Republican support for infrastructure spending will come only if Trump signals how to pay for it, LaHood says. "The president hasn't come out and said he supports an increase in the gas tax. He hasn't said he supports some kind of user fee," or been specific about how public-private partnerships might help largely rural districts like LaHood's.
LaHood also says, in his district, skepticism is high that infrastructure money will go where it's promised. "You go back to, 'The lottery is going to fund education,' " he says. "That hasn't happened. Or 'We'll raise your income tax and solve your pension problems.' "
LaHood's father, Ray, also a Republican, previously served the same district for seven terms before Obama reached across the aisle to tap him as U.S. transportation secretary in 2009.
In the absence of a federal infrastructure push, the elder LaHood says many states, Illinois included, have been trying to fill the gap locally. In Springfield, the Democratic-controlled Legislature last year approved a hike in the state gas tax and a casino expansion to help pay for infrastructure spending.
"They're fixing up roads and bridges because they're not waiting for the federal government. You don't see people in the states complaining about that," Ray LaHood says. "This is kind of a no-brainer."
U.S. Rep. Sean Casten, a Democrat from Downers Grove, says Republicans uncomfortable with deficits should not have backed Trump's tax cuts. As Casten sees it, the biggest reason Trump hasn't been able to nail down an infrastructure plan is his lack of focus.
"One of my colleagues described conversations with the president as a conversation with a super bouncy ball," Casten says. "It doesn't focus on anything. It just flies around the room. If we're going to have discussions about a seven- to 10-year infrastructure plan, it takes focus."
The economic tumult caused by the coronavirus is all the more reason to be willing to spend big now, Casten argues, including on green infrastructure.
"The only historical precedent we have is the Great Depression, and the only historical precedent we have from the Great Depression is massive infrastructure programs. (Federal Reserve Board Chairman) Jay Powell tells us we have zero to negative interest rates as far as the eye can see—this is exactly the time we should be much more ambitious on infrastructure."
While it's difficult to know the future of transit, air and highway use post-COVID, Joseph Schofer, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Northwestern University, says any infrastructure project must first address the infrastructure backlog but then ponder a more resilient future. He says modern lawmakers need to pay attention to the third "R" in the New Deal after relief and recovery: reform.
"Look at the stories in the media about the inequity in the incidence of COVID-19 and the severe illness and death: A lot has to do with economic development, segregation and racial divide," Schofer says. Housing should be part of that solution. "It seems to me that housing is really important for people's safety, security and happiness."