Planning board approves Illiana Expressway construction

Amid a split among suburban leaders, the controversial Illiana Expressway received a shot in the arm Thursday when a planning board endorsed the road, marking a significant political victory for Gov. Pat Quinn.

The Illiana is a proposed tollway linking I-55 in the south suburbs with I-65 in Indiana that would be built as a public-private partnership. While Quinn and the Illinois Department of Transportation are backing it as a vital piece of infrastructure, the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning warns it will cost taxpayers up to $1.1 billion.

CMAP's powerful Metropolitan Planning Organization policy committee voted 11 to 8 in favor of putting the roadway on the GO TO 2040 plan, which now makes it eligible for federal funding. The MPO includes county board chairman, transit agencies and transportation industry representatives.

Cook County, Chicago and McHenry County representatives opposed the Illiana while Kane, Lake, Will and DuPage counties backed it.

Lake County Chairman Aaron Lawlor said it was time to give public-private partnerships a chance.

“My concern is the federal government is broke, the state government is broke,” Lawlor said. “This is an opportunity to look for a new way to fund infrastructure that meets the needs of the region.”

“This is a roadway that is needed for the future,” Will County Executive Larry Walsh said.“This will be the opening of the door for economic development in the county,” Walsh said, adding it would dovetail with proposed and existing freight-handling facilities.

“We see no evidence the Illiana would lead to sustained job creation over the long term,” CMAP Executive Director Randy Blankenhorn said. “There is potential it would expose the state to significant financial risk.”

IDOT Secretary Ann Scheider has said the Illiana should pay for itself within 35 years.

But others warned the Illiana would drain away money from existing or future projects, such as the proposed Route 53 extension in Lake County.

“If we look at this based on facts not on desire or politics ... it isn't the right thing for this region,” CMAP board member and former Buffalo Grove Village President Elliott Hartstein said. “We all like ice cream — it's something people want but is it good for us? Is it the right thing to do?”

Regional Transportation Authority Deputy Executive Director for Planning Leanne Redden said her agency's current focus is on improving existing infrastructure. “We have questions about the project in terms of it being a priority for the region at this point,” she said.

The CTA also opposed the Illiana but Pace and Metra voted in favor as did the railroad industry and the Illinois tollway.

The project also pitted south suburban leaders from Cook County against farmers in rural Will County.

“Farmland is disappearing every day. Once it's gone, you can't replace it,” said Judy O'Galla, a Will County board member and farmer.

The Rev. David Bigsby, a Glenwood pastor, said the road was essential for economic prosperity for minorities and the poor. “This doesn't represent a hand out, it's a hand up,” he said.

IDOT planners estimate construction should cost $1.25 billion with Illinois' share of the road coming to $950 million.

Construction jobs should total about 9,000 and permanent jobs, mostly in freight and manufacturing, will amount to around 28,000, IDOT estimates. CMAP planners counter 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. CMAP also concludes freight activity isn't as intense in Will County as IDOT anticipates.

Elliott Hartstein
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