Illiana Expressway’s fate to be determined soon
By Casey Toner and Cindy Wojdyla Cain ctoner@southtownstar firstname.lastname@example.org October 4, 2013 10:04PM
GRAPHIC: Preferred route for the proposed Illiana Expressway.
Updated: November 7, 2013 6:49AM
The Illiana Expressway debate is coming to a head as two regional planning boards prepare to vote this month on the billion-dollar question of whether the road should get built.
The Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning and the Metropolitan Planning Organization have been asked to add the proposed tollway to a list of projects eligible for federal funding.
The list is part of CMAP’s Go To 2040 long-range transportation plan. If the Illiana doesn’t get on the list, it won’t move forward.
In a preliminary vote Friday, CMAP’s transportation committee voted to add the tollway to the plan, which outlines roughly $360 billion in transportation spending between now and 2040. Only $10 billion of that amount is reserved for new transportation projects, including the Interstate 294/Interstate 57 interchange and the Chicago Transit Authority’s Red Line South extension.
Transportation analysts disagree on the need for the 47-mile tollway, which would be built through a private/public partnership and would connect Interstate 55 near Wilmington with Interstate 65 near Lowell, Ind.
Supporters say it would provide another major east-west highway through Northeast Illinois and relieve traffic on I-80, which is needed because truck traffic is fast increasing in Will County in light of the growth of intermodal centers, where train and truck cargo are exchanged. The state transportation departments in Illinois and Indiana have planned the project.
Those opposed to the highway contend that it will cost much more than the projected $1.25 billion, and its benefits for economic development and traffic relief will be negligible.
During Friday’s transportation committee meeting, Matt Maloney, CMAP’s deputy chief of staff, said the expressway poses “considerable financial risk” without delivering long-term mobility benefits or economic growth. He estimated that even with the planned partnership, taxpayers may be on the hook for as much as $1.1 billion to build and maintain the road for 35 years.
“Our region today receives only limited dollars for transportation, and we need to spend these dollars wisely and base these decisions on performance,” Maloney said. “This is a project that has the potential to divert resources from other priorities around the region.”
Pete Harmet, bureau chief of programming for the Illinois Department of Transportation, countered that the Illiana Expressway would create about 9,000 construction jobs and reduce traffic on arterial roads that are “getting pounded by trucks.” He also questioned CMAP’s opposition.
“I feel like the CMAP staff has kept moving the goal posts on us and sometimes moving them from side to side,” Harmet said.
Jason Osbourne, McHenry County’s principal transportation planner, said he needed more financial details from IDOT to endorse the Illiana plan.
“When you spend $40 million on an analysis, I would expect better arguments, better details,” Osbourne said. “This is maybe a good project but not now. Why now? That’s a question for IDOT. How did his become a big priority for IDOT?”
Several Will County politicians and organizations supported the measure during Friday’s meeting. John Grueling, president and chief executive of the Will County Center for Economic Development, called the expressway a “project of national significance.”
Frankfort Mayor Jim Holland also was on board with the highway.
“It’s financially sound, it’s regional in nature, and unlike so many projects in this state of ours, this project has legs,” Holland said. “It has traction, it has political support, and it is moving ahead for the benefit of all.”
Gov. Pat Quinn and Transportation Secretary Ann Schneider have fast-tracked planning for the Illiana in recent months. But it faces legal opposition. Openlands, Sierra Club and the Midewin Heritage Association filed a federal lawsuit this summer to block the expressway, which they contend will damage state and federally protected natural resources.
Now that its transportation committee has recommended including the Illiana in the 2040 plan, the 15-member CMAP board will vote at 9:30 a.m. Wednesday at CMAP headquarters, 233 S. Wacker Drive, Suite 800, Chicago.
The 19-member board of the Metropolitan Planning Organization was to vote on the tollway the same day, but Schneider, who chairs the MPO board, asked that the meeting be postponed to 3 p.m. Oct. 17 in the CMAP meeting room.
If the CMAP board rejects the Illiana, the MPO board still has final say. It needs a supermajority of 12 votes to add the tollway to the 2040 plan.
Will County Executive Larry Walsh, who represents the county on the MPO board, will vote in favor of the Illiana Expressway, his chief of staff, Nick Palmer, said. Palmer noted that U.S. Sens. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), and Dan Coats (R-Ind.), came out in support of the project last week.
“So there is national, state and regional support for this,” Palmer said. “We’re going to keep pushing until the vote is cast at 3 p.m. on the 17th.”
Many eastern Will County residents oppose the tollway, which they see as a modern-day Berlin Wall that will divide their community and cut farmers off from their fields. County board member Judy Ogalla (R-Monee) said politicians who support the road are more worried about the ballot box than bottlenecks.
“Most elected officials don’t want to be against something that might create jobs,” she said. “They’re worried that it will cut into their votes.”
The jobs that are promised in IDOT’s Illiana plan could be created by fixing existing roads instead, Ogalla said.
“There are plenty of state roads that need repairs, and they could put people to work right now,” she said. “The state needs to take what little money it has and upgrade our existing roads and bridges.”