Illiana Expressway fails to get support from planning group

Accusations of political pressure dominated debate Wednesday about the Illiana Expressway, which the Chicago Metropolitan Agency on Planning voted not to put on a list of significant projects that become eligible for federal funding.

“I’ve never seen so much political pressure put on this board in the history of this agency,” CMAP Chairman and Palos Hills Mayor Gerald Bennett Bennett said, saying some board members were afraid of upsetting Illiana backers Gov. Pat Quinn and the Illinois Department of Transportation, thereby risking support for local highway projects.

Former Villa Park Village President Rae Rupp Srch admitted she had received some pressure from DuPage County Chairman Dan Cronin and DuPage County mayors to support the Illiana. “It’s a reluctant yes,” she said of her vote for the expressway project.

In the end, the vote was 10-4 against listing the Illiana, which Bennett called a “highway in nowhere land” because of the project’s location in a rural area of eastern Will County.

However, the vote is not the final one on the Illiana — a proposed tollway linking I-55 in the south suburbs with I-65 in Indiana. Another significant vote will occur Oct. 17 by members of another CMAP panel that includes state and local officials, transit agencies, and representatives from the transportation industry. Their decision will determine the fate of the project.

CMAP planners have recommended against including the Illiana in the agency’s GO TO 2040 plan, contending it would cost the state millions, have a minimal impact on congestion and fail to create the promised number of jobs. Meanwhile, Illinois Department of Transportation officials say it will remove trucks from local highways, create jobs and be an economic boost for freight and manufacturing. The state is proposing the Illiana as a public-private partnership.

The Rev. David Bigsby, pastor of a Glenwood church and president of the South Suburban Action Conference, said his area was “on economic death row. This will give us some hope,” he said. “Along with the south suburban airport, it will make us feel like part of the region.”

Suburban mayors on CMAP also reflected the regional disconnect. Schaumburg Mayor Al Larson voted no, as did former Buffalo Grove Village President Elliott Hartstein, while Aurora Mayor Tom Weisner voted yes.

“The Illiana doesn’t measure up,” CMAP Vice Chairman Hartstein said. “We can’t make decisions on a political basis ... we have to make decisions based on what brings the best bang for the buck.”

Weisner said, “I think the Will County area’s going to grow hugely in the next decade or two in terms of freight handling, logistics, etc. partly because of the location and amenities in the area. I’d like to have a fair shot at seeing what the private sector can do in response.”

In 2010, CMAP approved its GO TO 2040 plan that prioritizes major regional projects such as the Elgin-O’Hare Expressway extension. The Illiana didn’t make the cut back in 2010.

On Oct. 17, CMAP’s Metropolitan Planning Organization Policy Committee, which includes the chairmen of the six counties or their representatives — will have the last word on the decision. So far there’s a split, with Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle and McHenry County Chairman Tina Hill against and Will County Executive Larry Walsh and Cronin in favor.

Meanwhile, two are undecided. Lake County Chairman Aaron Lawlor previously said he needed time to study the different analyses. Kane County County Chairman Chris Lauzen also said on Wednesday he wants to research the issue more.

However, Kane County’s Deputy Director of Transportation Tom Rickert voted for the Illiana Friday at a CMAP transportation committee meeting. “His vote is his vote and my vote is my vote,” Lauzen said.

IDOT planners contend the road will relieve truck congestion in the metro area and create 9,000 construction jobs and an estimated 28,000 permanent jobs. Construction costs are estimated at $1.25 billion with Illinois’ share of the road coming to $950 million. Tolling the road should mitigate costs estimated at $870 million over 50 years.

CMAP thinks the state is overestimating the revenues and lowballing other costs. In a worst-case scenario, CMAP projects the state’s shortfall for construction and operating over 35 years would be $1.1 billion.

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