Kirk: Expressway deserves shot as transportation model
By Mark Kirk Guest Commentary October 15, 2013 7:54PM
Updated: November 17, 2013 6:25AM
As is often the case with highly technical regional transportation investments, it is easy to get lost in the ongoing jurisdictional battle regarding the proposed Illiana Expressway, a 47-mile highway between Interstate 55 in Illinois and Interstate 65 in Indiana.
I am not interested in the fight between the staff of the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, which opposes the project, and the Illinois Department of Transportation, which supports it. Theirs is a battle of competing economic analyses, including project cost and revenue estimates, and who is the foremost authority on responsible transportation development.
What I do support is investment in our infrastructure that helps attract high-quality jobs to our state, which is why I support including the Illiana Expressway in CMAP’s long-term strategic plan, known as Go To 2040, enabling the project to move forward.
I believe there is considerable value in an Illiana Expressway. Even CMAP agrees that the proposed tollway would increase the gross regional product by $425 million. There also is significant support from business and civic organizations as well as local governments and leaders.
What is most interesting about the project, however, is the potential to use a public-private partnership to build and maintain the tollway. Anyone who reads this newspaper knows that our governments in Washington, D.C., and Springfield are broke. We can no longer afford to spend money we don’t have.
Public-private partnerships can help tap private investment in public assets and help address our infrastructure needs. Such a successful partnership for the Illiana Expressway could provide a model for other important infrastructure investments such as the extension of Illinois 53 in Lake County, resulting in lasting regional improvements.
But simply adding the Illiana project to the Go To 2040 regional plan should not be where oversight ends.
I supported Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s efforts to privatize Midway Airport because I believe we need to use innovative finance to generate more investment in our infrastructure. I also supported his decision to back away from a Midway deal when it was determined that it was not in the best interest of the citizens of Chicago.
Public-private partnership procurements are complicated. They take time to put together, with significant input from private industry regarding their structure and terms. Halting the Illiana Expressway’s progress now eliminates this option.
It may be that the market determines that the highway is not a good investment. If that is the case and the project does not make financial sense, then it should not move forward. To be sure, managing financial risk to the taxpayer should be the No. 1 priority for any public-private partnership.
But expecting a ready-made deal before a project is allowed to pursue private investment is a recipe for failure and hamstrings the very innovation that public-private partnerships promise.
Our infrastructure in Illinois is aging, and we don’t have the resources to keep up with demand. The Illiana Expressway is an opportunity to explore a new way to address how we invest in transportation, and one that I am excited to see move forward.
Mark Kirk, a Republican, is the junior U.S. senator from Illinois.