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Foes ready to fight Illiana tollway at hearings this week

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Updated: March 18, 2014 6:17AM



People move to the country for a reason, but it’s not to live in the shadow of a 47-mile toll road, say many who have spoken out against the proposed Illiana Expressway.

Opponents are gearing up for a pair of public hearings this week on the latest environmental impact study on the proposed tollway that would connect Interstate 55 in Wilmington to Interstate 65 near Lowell, Ind. The hearings, hosted by the Illinois and Indiana transportation departments, will be from 5 to 8 p.m. Tuesday night in Lowell, Ind., and Wednesday night in Wilmington.

“It will be like the Berlin Wall going through farmland,” said Anthony Rayson, of Monee Township, who organized “No Illiana 4 Us,” an umbrella group that has united pockets of resistance in both states.

The new highway would dissect several farms, close several north-south roads and totally change the rural lifestyle of those who live nearby, he said.

“It’s an outside project being shoved down our throats,” Rayson said. “They don’t care what we think.”

The Illiana Expressway corridor would have 11 interchanges; force 42 residents, 29 farmsteads, and five business to move; sever 128 farms and impact more than 3,000 acres of farmland, 62 acres of wetlands and 57 floodplains — much of that in Illinois, according to the new environmental impact study.

It says the preferred route runs east from Wilmington between Arsenal and Peotone roads, dips south at an interchange at Cedar Road and continues east between Wilmington-Peotone Road and Kennedy/Kentucky Road.

Among the 15 roads proposed to be closed are (from west to east) Indian Trail Road, Martin Long Road, Walsh Road, 88th Avenue, Ridgeland Egyptian Trail, Crawford Avenue, Western Avenue, County Highway 13, Stony Island Avenue and Klemme Road.

Interchanges are planned at I-55, Illinois 53, Cedar Road, U.S. 45, Interstate 57 and Illinois 1 in Illinois and at U.S. 41, Indiana 55 and I-65 in Indiana.

Area residents who have long battled the state over the proposed South Suburban Airport are again fighting to save their farmland, this time from a highway they feel is not needed.

“The rural area is getting obliterated,” said Will County Board member Judy Ogalla, D-Monee.

Peotone Township dairy farmer Virginia Hamann puts it in a context to which all can relate — the loss of Will County farmland for the tollway will mean a loss of 1.6 million boxes of corn flakes every year, she figured.

Depending on the final route, Hamann could lose her house or her land or be cut off from her alfalfa field.

“We lose no matter what,” she said. “They said the highway will make it easier for farmers to get to market, but we can’t even get to our field. We can’t even get to the elevators. All that results in added time and added fuel.”

The Illinois Department of Transportation says northwest Indiana and northeast Illinois are “essentially the crossroads of America,” a national transportation link, and the tollway is needed because the region is experiencing substantial growth in population, jobs and truck and freight traffic.

Opponents, however, claim that the Illiana Expressway will be a financial boondoggle.

“It will hurt the regional transportation budget for years to come without providing any appreciable benefit,” said Andrew Armstrong, staff attorney with the Environmental Law and Policy Center in Cicago.

The plan is for the $1.3 billion tollway to be built through a public-private partnership in which a private company would build and operate the tollway. That leaves its foes fearing that tolls will be excessive to cover the debt incurred — and meaning that its traffic will be much less than projected. The toll is estimated at $11 to travel the entire length — nearly four times more than other regional toll roads, Armstrong said.

Besides taking much productive farmland, the tollway will pollute the Kankakee River and private wells and adversely affect habitats at the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, which at one point comes within 75 feet of the highway, opponents said.

The Environmental Law and Policy Center filed a lawsuit in July with Open Lands, the Sierra Club and the Midewin Heritage Association against the federal government, contending that the demographic forecasts used to justify the need for the tollway are inflated.

Washington Township Trustee Paul Goldrick said he will have to move from the home he built 20 years ago because he does not want to live next door to the toll road.

“It’s heartbreaking. It could be within 300 to 400 feet of my home,” he said. “Why should I suffer so someone can make a profit? That’s not right.”

His property value will take a “humongous hit,” and Goldrick is urging IDOT to create an escrow account for those who will suffer diminished property value.

Those promoting the Illiana Expressway promise it will bring more business development and jobs, but there are no guarantees, he said.

“Most people don’t understand because they don’t live here,” Goldrick said.

Will County Board member Bob Howard, D-Beecher, lives on Klemme Road, one of those that could be closed. The tollway will be a half-mile from his house.

“It will definitely change everything,” he said.

Goldrick and Howard said it is the simple, day-to-day enjoyments of country living that will be disrupted. Howard said he will work to mitigate the negative impacts, such as ensuring full access for emergency vehicles and erecting walls or berms to mitigate the traffic noise.

“Do I want my life to change? No. I planned to retire out here. I never expected this,” said Howard, who has lived in Beecher for more than 45 years. “But I do understand the benefits of it. Eventually it will be good for the area.”



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