Why you should care about the battle of the Illiana Expressway
Daily Herald File Photo Gov. Pat Quinn and former Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels kicked off the Illiana Expressway with a memorandum of understanding in 2010.
This month, the MPO Policy Committee will vote on whether to include the Illiana Corridor in CMAP's GO TO 2040 comprehensive plan and ... zzzzzzzzzzzzz.
Hey, stay with me! The Illiana is a proposed tollway linking I-55 in the south suburbs with I-65 in Indiana. Whether it should be built is the subject of a Gov. Pat Quinn vs. Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning throwdown.
If you're planning to visit Chicago early next Sunday — be forewarned! It's the annual Bank of America Chicago Marathon, meaning blocked streets and big crowds in the a.m. Metra will be running special trains inbound during the early morning and outbound in the afternoon. The run starts around 7:30 a.m.
You might be asking — why should I care? Or — will this highway improve my suburban commute?
According to the wonks at CMAP — no.
Planners all but called the Illiana a boondoggle, warning the government is delusional (my words) if it thinks the private sector and tolls would pay for the lion's share of the highway.
As for why you should care, CMAP cautions that taxpayers could be on the hook for millions of dollars in operating costs.
Nonsense, counter Illinois Department of Transportation folks, characterizing CMAP's conclusions as "simplistic and misleading."
"The Illiana Expressway is a critical economic development project that will greatly improve transportation throughout the region and bring tens of thousands of jobs to Chicago Southland," IDOT spokeswoman Jae Miller said.
So far, the region is divided with Cook and McHenry counties underwhelmed, while DuPage is firmly in Camp Illiana.
Before we get into the my-data-is-better-than-your-data duel, a little background.
In 2010, CMAP approved its GO TO 2040 plan that prioritizes major regional projects such as the Elgin-O'Hare Expressway extension. If a project is included in GO TO 2040 that means it's in line for federal funding, which is essential to build anything these days.
The Illiana didn't make the cut back in 2010, but the CMAP board and another committee — the Metropolitan Planning Organization Policy Committee — will vote on whether to amend that soon. The MPO includes some heavy hitters, such as the chairmen of the six local counties or their representatives, and its vote on Oct. 17 could catapult the Illiana onto GO TO 2040.
If you're an incumbent governor seeking re-election (Quinn) you want to win this fight. Losing would be a major embarrassment given all the photo ops with Indiana governors talking about interstate cooperation.
Secondly, IDOT estimates the road would create 9,000 construction jobs — a nice statistic to drop during a gubernatorial debate.
So it's "game on" with some powerful players hoping to persuade the 19 members of the Metropolitan Planning Organization to support the expressway.
McHenry County Chairman Tina Hill had a recent visit from IDOT Secretary Ann Schneider to discuss the merits of the Illiana.
Hill was unconvinced, noting that McHenry County's got plenty of roads it wants fixed first.
"I'm not saying it's not a good project," Hill noted.
"But we want to make sure McHenry County projects aren't pushed aside. Give me Route 47, and we'll consider it," she half-jokingly added, referring to the congested north-south arterial road.
Likewise, Cook County President Toni Preckwinkle was unimpressed by the Illiana hype.
In a letter to Quinn, Preckwinkle lists concerns about taking jobs out of the six-county region and the Illiana costing more than estimated to the detriment of existing projects.
"Momentum and resources built in the last 10 years to support the freight industry in Cook County could be jeopardized by construction of the Illiana," she wrote. Moreover, the "expressway will, at best, only address a very small part of the region's freight congestion."
But DuPage County Chairman Dan Cronin has a different opinion. "We're for it," Cronin said. "I'm a big believer in regional economic development. I believe in the old saying that a 'rising tide raises all boats.' It may be down south from us, but it's helpful to the region ... I know some think it will take jobs and wealth away (from the region), but I don't share that belief."
Meanwhile, Lake County Chairman Aaron Lawlor wants to wade through CMAP's analysis before judging.
"One of the things I'm interested in on the financing side is — if it goes through — can they strategically organize the bond payments, so it's backloaded to mitigate the use of IDOT money?" Lawlor asked.
Here's what IDOT says.
• The road is essential to moving freight efficiently between Illinois and Indiana and will relieve truck congestion in the metropolitan area.
• Construction should cost $1.25 billion with Illinois' share of the road coming to $950 million. Tolling the road through a public-private partnership should mitigate operating and maintenance costs estimated at $870 million over 50 years.
• Construction jobs should total about 9,000 and permanent jobs, mostly in freight and manufacturing, will amount to around 28,000.
CMAP planners disagree.
• For starters, they say IDOT's construction estimates are low and don't match projects in other states. Moreover, public-private partnerships can be risky — "there is no free money," planners state. In a worst-case scenario, CMAP projects the state's shortfall for construction and operating over 35 years would be $1.1 billion.
• CMAP says the state is wrong in expecting density and economic growth along the Illiana corridor in southern, rural Will County. CMAP said the state is using outdated data. "Growth is likely to be more intensive in the north ... the proposed Illiana corridor would be a misplaced investment," planners said. CMAP also concludes freight activity isn't as intense in Will County as IDOT anticipates.
• CMAP also faults IDOT for failing to hand over financial data. Without hard numbers from the state, the agency's own analysis rates the project as financially risky and unlikely to produce the promised permanent jobs.
• The impact of the Illiana to reduce traffic in the metro area is minimal, the agency concludes. Far better priorities to cut congestion are building the Elgin-O'Hare Expressway extension and expanding Route 53 into Lake County, analysts recommend.
Former Buffalo Grove Village President Elliott Hartstein, who is vice chairman of CMAP's board, said it's important everyone's voice be heard when the group votes in a separate action from the MPO on Wednesday.
But he admits, "there are many legitimate questions raised in the (CMAP) staff report, whether it be the financial risk or the economic impact or the impact on congestion."
Meanwhile, CMAP's transportation committee voted 10-7 Friday to include the Illiana in GO TO 2040. Stay tuned.
One more thing
The rumor mill has it there's some horse-trading going on along the lines of "Love the Illiana, and we'll love your road project."
Cronin said that's not the case and he also noted that the state, with its budget crisis, doesn't have much to bargain with.
"We're for it because of merits," he said.
What do you think? Is the Illiana a boondoggle or the next best transportation thing in the world? Drop me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org://www.ventrachicago.com/;[URL].[/URL]
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