Editorial: Kill the Illiana, this time for good

A year after the proposed Illiana Expressway should have been declared dead on arrival, it somehow will make it back before the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning on Oct. 8 and the Metropolitan Planning Organization on Oct. 9 for another crucial vote. It needs to be rejected again.

We're talking to you, suburban members of both boards (including DuPage and Lake county MPO board representatives, who mystified us with their earlier support for this road-fund glutton). We recognize that voting "no" on a $1.3 billion project, one that guarantees lots of construction jobs, can be hard to swallow, especially when you have projects in your own backyard you want support for. But in the wheeling and dealing for the Illiana tollway, which unconscionably would be given top-priority status for funding, the suburbs can only lose.

They lose because in making Illiana the priority, other projects that might do a better job fixing gridlock will get shelved or delayed. They lose because the jobs and population that this 47-mile highway will create in Will County will come at the expense of other counties, mostly Cook and Kane.

And most of all they lose, because CMAP's own analysis indicates the tolls will be too high to attract the truck traffic the Illiana is being built for. Therefore, the state's taxpayers will have to subsidize it, while by at least one analysis, Indiana gets the bulk of the benefit.

Moreover, regional planning isn't even supposed to be political. The whole reason CMAP was brought into existence was to do comprehensive planning without political consideration. Its decisions are meant to be professional, based on analysis of the projects that will most effectively eliminate gridlock and help the greatest number of people.

Of course, the ship of politics already sank once on the SS Illiana. On the strength of its own experts' report, the CMAP board voted 10-4 last October - 10 to 4 - to leave the Illiana out of "Go To 2040," a list of projects in line for federal transit funding. Shortly thereafter, the MPO Policy Committee overrode CMAP by a narrow 11-8 vote and included the toll road in Go To 2040 - an action that's the subject of a lawsuit with strong arguments questioning the MPO committee's authority.

While that suit is pending, updates to the 2040 plan require another set of votes next week, but the Illiana fits few of the professional planning criteria - and none of the common-sense economic criteria.

Connecting I-55 near Joliet with I-65 in Indiana south of Merrillville, the Illiana is meant to relieve truck traffic on I-80, unclog the I-55/I-80 interchange and open up the Southland region to greater commerce and population growth.

The Joliet end of the Illiana is not entirely the "road from nowhere" some critics have portrayed. The CenterPoint Intermodal Center, the "largest master-planned inland port in North America," sends a lot of trucks eastward on I-80 each day, with more anticipated as the 6,500 acres fill up. Moving those trucks off I-80 is not an unreasonable goal, but an expensive toll road the trucks would likely shun hardly seems an answer.

So bad are the revenue estimates that when the Illiana was first pitched as a public-private partnership, not a single private entity offered a bid. In response, Illinois authorities came up with a plan that would virtually eliminate all risk for the private partner and leave taxpayers on the hook if revenues fall short of objectives - a circumstance CMAP estimates could cost between $440 million and $1.1 billion over three decades.

This alone makes the Illiana an unacceptable boondoggle for Illinois, even discounting the millions of dollars the road could suck away from potential needed projects in the already-glutted suburbs.

The CMAP board wisely rejected the Illiana last year. They should be ashamed to see it brought back for review. We urge CMAP members to stick to their guns and remove the road from federal funding again next week. Keep politics out of planning.

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