Chicago motorists and some residents looking out their front windows soon can expect to see the towering digital billboards favored by Mayor Rahm Emanuel going up on city-owned property near area expressways.
The Illinois Department of Transportation has approved 11 locations for the 100-foot-tall electronic signs after months of wrangling over one of Emanuel's signature moneymakers and a Springfield agreement between the mayor and Gov. Pat Quinn.
The billboard permits are the first indication of movement on the massive advertising agreement between City Hall and conglomerate Interstate-JCDecaux LLC since May, when the mayor and governor endorsed a state measure designed to expedite approval of 25 of the billboards.
In all, the contract calls for Interstate-JCDecaux to put up 34 double-sided billboards on city land near Chicago expressways.
Three of the 11 approved signs are slated to go up near the Dan Ryan Expressway just south of the Circle Interchange near downtown, while another is earmarked for a city-owned lot near the junction of the Dan Ryan and Stevenson expressways, according to city records.
Two more have been approved for city-owned sites along the Kennedy Expressway not far from the junction with the Edens Expressway near houses in the Jefferson Park neighborhood.
Three additional signs got the OK along the Stevenson: one west of State Street south of the expressway, another on Wabash Avenue just to the north and a third along the frontage near California Avenue on the south side.
The City Council approved Emanuel's 20-year contract with Interstate-JCDecaux to operate the digital signs in December, throwing the ball to the state Transportation Department to evaluate the locations for their adherence to the Federal Highway Beautification Act and other guidelines. For several months, Quinn's agency did not approve any of Emanuel's sites.
Then Quinn and Emanuel reached their accord in the waning days of the spring legislative session. The billboard measure that got the ball rolling on the site approvals was passed by the Illinois Senate the same day a House committee advanced a broad bill containing pet projects sought by the mayor and the governor. It included the mayor's plan to expand McCormick Place and build a new hotel and basketball stadium for DePaul University and also a measure to construct an airport near Peotone, an idea Quinn has supported.
The agreement mandated that the state Transportation Department approve the proposed billboards "to the extent that the waiver does not contravene" the federal act.
The clock is ticking on approvals for an additional 23 electronic ads expected to go up. Emanuel is counting on $15 million from the program to balance his 2013 budget, and the city will get that amount from Interstate-JCDecaux this year only if all 34 billboards that aldermen signed off on have been approved by the state by the end of the year.
City Revenue Department spokeswoman Kelley Quinn said the administration expects to collect the full amount this year but did not say when the billboards would go up.
Emanuel's agreement with Interstate-JCDecaux is for at least $155 million over the full 20 years, but the $15 million amounts to an upfront loan the city will have to pay back. The company will pay the city $10 million more next year. Starting in 2015, however, the city will repay $5 million a year for five years, according to the contract.
Interstate executives donated $10,000 to Emanuel's mayoral campaign; JCDecaux won a lucrative contract for bus shelters under Emanuel's predecessor, Richard M. Daley. The two firms joined up to put forward the billboard idea last year.
The Emanuel administration selected the joint venture's proposal as the best from among five companies that pitched digital billboard plans as part of the city's digital marketing campaign.
The city did not put the billboard idea out for public bid, however, leading some aldermen to criticize the administration for not making sure it got the best possible deal.