Kadner: Illiana hatched at Skyline Restaurant
By Phil Kadner firstname.lastname@example.org October 18, 2013 8:48PM
Updated: November 21, 2013 6:41AM
As a key planning committee gave the green light to the Illiana Expressway on Thursday, I remembered an odd meeting at a table in the rear of a Chicago Heights restaurant in 2009.
I believe that meeting planted the seed that became a plan to build a 47-mile, $1.3 billion tollway, financed through a public-private partnership.
I don’t remember how I got tipped to the meeting, but I do recall being skeptical at the time.
I knew that Gov. Pat Quinn, who earlier that year had succeeded the impeached Gov. Rod Blagojevich, was going to be in the south suburbs to meet with about a dozen mayors at the Egg and I restaurant in Chicago Heights. That meeting was on the governor’s public schedule.
But the meeting at the Skyline Restaurant, long a popular campaign stop for Chicago Heights politicians, was to occur a few hours earlier and was supposed to be private. I was told it would include Quinn, state Rep. Anthony DeLuca (D-Chicago Heights) and Crete Mayor Michael Einhorn.
That seemed odd, not only because Quinn had the other meeting on his schedule, but DeLuca had just been appointed to fill the House seat vacated by state Rep. George Scully, who had resigned to become a Cook County judge.
It seemed unusual for a freshman legislator to have the clout that would get a governor to agree to a private meeting.
But sure enough, seated at a back table at Skyline on Dixie Highway were Einhorn and Bloom Township Democratic Committeeman Terry Matthews.
As I remember it, DeLuca waited outside for Quinn to arrive, and as I followed them inside DeLuca wondered what I was doing there. I said I was there because the governor was meeting with local officials.
Einhorn seemed uncomfortable, and DeLuca said something about the meeting being private. Quinn looked at me, seemed to think for a split second and said I could stay. No problem.
I had no idea about the topic of the meeting and then Einhorn began talking about the need for an Illiana Expressway, connecting Interstate 65 in Indiana with I-57 and I-55 in Illinois.
It seemed like an odd request. The Illiana had been a hot topic in 2000 or 2003, but no one had discussed it seriously for years.
The nation was in the throes of what would become known as the Great Recession. Illinois already was reeling from the Blagojevich scandal and financial woes of its own. I couldn’t imagine the new governor seriously taking on such an expensive project.
“As I recall, the governor didn’t seem to know much about the Illiana,” Einhorn recalled during a telephone conversation on Friday. “It struck me it was all sort of new to him.”
That was my interpretation as well, although Quinn did demonstrate an immediate interest in the project.
In a column about that meeting, I wrote that, “Quinn asks Einhorn how he feels about a tollway instead of an expressway,” and Einhorn responded that it seemed obvious to him, given the economics of the time, that the project could only be funded as a tollway.
The governor pressed Einhorn on how the public would feel about a tollway and seemed to study the mayor closely as he answered. Einhorn was cagey, saying he thought the public would support it but never was sure how the public would react to anything.
“The governor didn’t seem convinced” that the public would support the tollway, I wrote, and repeatedly scribbled notes to himself.
Quinn asked if other mayors were on board with the Illiana Expressway and where they were from.
And then Quinn said something that struck me as really strange — he said he was committed to building the Illiana as well as the South Suburban Airport.
The airport project wasn’t a shock because it had long been in the news. But the Illiana Expressway? Really? Where did that come from?
Brooke Anderson, Quinn’s spokeswoman, told me that the governor recalled the meeting with Einhorn at the Skyline.
But she said that wasn’t a pivotal moment, just one of many discussions the governor had before making up his mind to pursue the project.
“He had discussed it with Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels” at a national conference, Anderson said. “And (former state senator) Debbie Halvorson (of Crete) had talked to him about the expressway along with Will County officials.”
DeLuca told me he hadn’t even thought about the meeting with Einhorn and Quinn until I called him Friday.
“But I do remember it,” he said. “I was very grateful that the governor would be so gracious to a freshman representative.
“I did call and ask him to meet with the mayor because I had met with Einhorn for about three hours in his office in Crete. Crete was in my district and (Einhorn) laid all of these maps out on a table and we poured over them and they had all these routes for a possible Illiana Expressway.
“The mayor wanted to talk to the governor about the idea so I called the governor, talked to him personally and he agreed to the meeting.”
DeLuca said he didn’t recall if the idea of a public-private partnership to build the highway had been mentioned at that meeting, and I confessed I couldn’t remember if it had.
But it was obvious that Quinn wasn’t convinced that the public would be enthusiastic about another traditional tollway, and there was no money available for a freeway.
And what I know for sure is that not long after the Skyline Restaurant meeting, Quinn astonished everyone by publicly announcing that the Illiana was a “priority” of his administration.
As for Einhorn, he’s less than enthusiastic about the Illiana Expressway today.
“The route is miles south of where I wanted it and won’t do much to relieve traffic on the local roads,” he said. “And I always wanted a freeway.
“You don’t get everything you want. That’s life.”