Updated: November 21, 2013 6:43AM
The controversy over the Illiana Expressway is not going away, but Thursday’s critical vote by a regional planning committee in the tollway project’s favor allows it to stay alive and qualify for federal funding.
That’s important because the $1.3 billion project deserves a shot at generating private investment through the proposed public-private partnership that’s a first for Illinois and the only way it’s going to get built. It still has a federal hurdle or two to clear, but the key question concerns its financing — primarily whether taxpayers will have to subsidize it because toll revenue is not sufficient to support its operation.
The 47-mile highway to connect Interstate 55 with I-65 in northwest Indiana engendered considerable debate and widely divergent predictions of its cost and chances of success among regional and state officials — with most from Chicago and Cook County opposed to it and the two governors and local and federal representatives from south Cook and Will counties strongly supporting it.
We support the tollway because of its potential to foster economic development and relieve traffic congestion on interstates 80 and 55 through our area and to accommodate projected population growth in Will County. Two large freight-transfer centers in the county, with others likely in the future, have led to a major increase in truck traffic on the interstate highways that the tollway is aimed at relieving.
But there are some big questions for which regional planners, the state transportation departments and politicians have provided much different answers. Is the $1.3 billion cost estimate accurate? Will enough vehicles use the tollway to pay off its construction debt and cover its operating costs? Is it likely to spur substantial economic growth in south Cook and Will counties?
Some of the uncertainty stems from such a public-private project never having been tried in Illinois. The private sector will determine whether the Illiana Expressway ever exists, but the tollway’s possible benefits for an economically disadvantaged region of the Chicago area make it worth the risk.