Opposition continues to mount against Illiana Expressway
BY CINDY CAIN firstname.lastname@example.org September 10, 2013 2:36PM
Preferred route for proposed Illiana Expressway
Updated: October 12, 2013 6:24AM
JOLIET — Will County and Illinois Department of Transportation officials may be facing an uphill battle to get the Illiana Expressway added to a federal funding list.
“This is a tough go,” John Greuling, president and CEO of the Will County Center for Economic Development, said Tuesday during a Will County Board Legislative and Policy Committee meeting.
Information released Monday by the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning shows public comment was overwhelmingly against a plan to amend the agency’s Go To 2040 plan to include the 47-mile tollway that would link Interstate 55 in Wilmington with Interstate 65 near Lowell, Ind.
During a 30-day period that ended Sept. 3, 965 comments were received. Of those, 169 were in support and 796 were against, according to IDOT officials. Also, the comments included two petitions with a total of 3,798 signatures from people opposing the project.
The comments will all be taken into account before the CMAP and Metropolitan Planning Organization boards vote on the Illiana amendment on Oct. 9.
Will County officials have been told that the project could proceed if the MPO board votes yes, even if the CMAP board votes no. Both boards are part of a federal review process for getting projects added to a fiscally constrained funding list.
Last week, a different agency, the Chicago-based Metropolitan Planning Council, came out against the Illiana, saying IDOT’s $1.3 billion cost estimate for the road was “dubious” and it could cost up to $2.9 billion.
The higher estimate is “an enormous amount of money for one project, particularly in a severely cash-strapped state,” Metropolitan Planning Council President MarySue Barrett wrote in a letter to The Herald-News and SouthtownStar.
According to its website, the Metropolitan Planning Council is a nonprofit, nonpartisan agency that has been working for a “more sustainable and prosperous greater Chicago region” since 1934. The council’s board does not get to vote on the Illiana.
But there are other stumbling blocks that could hurt the Illiana. On July 10, three environmental groups — Openlands, the Midewin Heritage Association and the Sierra Club — filed a federal lawsuit in Chicago to try to block the project. And on July 30, a CMAP staff criticized IDOT’s Illiana plan and its cost and economic benefit estimates. Cook County and McHenry County officials also are opposed to the road because they fear it will harm funding for projects in their counties, Greuling said.
With opposition mounting, “it’s pretty hardball politics right now, quite frankly,” Greuling said to committee members, who voted unanimously Tuesday to continue to include the Illiana in the county’s legislative agenda.
Committee Chairman Bob Howard, D-Beecher, said it doesn’t seem right that planning agencies in Chicago can trump state legislators who have approved the Illiana project and its public-private partnership. And Greuling said he has never seen CMAP scrutinize a road project as closely as it has the Illiana.
Bruce Friefeld, the county board’s chief of staff, urged the committee and the full county board to approve a resolution backing the Illiana at its Sept. 19 meeting, in advance of the Oct. 9 vote in Chicago.
One complicating Catch-22 for the Illiana is the fact that IDOT can’t tell CMAP and the MPO how much money a private entity would chip in for the road through a public-private partnership because the project hasn’t been bid yet, Greuling said. As a result, the planning agencies have to assume the state would need to come up with all of the money, and that could hurt the Illiana’s chances of getting on the federal funding list.
Recently, Gov. Pat Quinn and state transportation Secretary Ann Schneider tried to fast-track the Illiana and said they hoped to break ground in 2015.
Will County and IDOT officials have argued that the Illiana would provide much needed relief for Interstates 55 and 80 by siphoning off truck traffic that rolls out of intermodal truck/train transfer facilities in Elwood and Joliet.
Greuling said the road was never intended to foster residential and commercial development, so it really wouldn’t add to the urban sprawl that CMAP is opposed to.
“It truly is a bypass,” Greuling said.