Illiana Expressway rejected by planners, but can they be overruled?

The fate of the Illiana Expressway, which has been strongly pushed by Gov. Pat Quinn as a job machine but was characterized by critics as an expensive boondoggle, could be decided today. Or it could not.

Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning leaders voted Wednesday to reject the project. However, because the vote, 10-4, was not a sufficient supermajority, it puts the fate of the Illiana in limbo.

A separate panel votes on the project today, but there are conflicting views on whether the Metropolitan Planning Organization's decision will trump Wednesday's outcome.

The road is a hot political potato with just weeks before the Nov. 4 election.

CMAP Board Chairman Gerald Bennett said the Illinois Department of Transportation's hopes of a public-private partnership on the Illiana aren't panning out, which he said puts the state at risk.

"They (IDOT) know there's not going to be a private investor that underwrites this," he said. "It's a runaway train. IDOT has driven a stake into this organization and its future by pushing the Illiana project onto the region."

Quinn's deputy chief of staff, Juan Morado Jr., defended the road. "This will be a game-changer for the area," he said, referring to Will and Kendall counties.

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 IDOT are backing it as a vital piece of infrastructure, CMAP experts warned in 2013 it would cost Illinois taxpayers up to $1.1 billion with limited benefits.

The CMAP board of directors, which includes local mayors and county officials, rejected the expressway a year ago, but its big brother - the Metropolitan Planning Organization policy committee - approved it. The MPO, which includes transit officials and county chairman, is viewed as more political than the CMAP board.

The MPO's decision carried more weight and automatically included the Illiana in CMAP's GO TO 2040 plan, making it eligible for federal funding.

This week is a rematch of sorts as officials vote on what should have been a routine decision - approving an update of GO TO 2040, a blueprint for growth in the region.

But because the new GO TO 2040 includes the Illiana, CMAP board members held a separate vote on the road. The outcome was 10-4 in favor of ousting the project, but it failed because 12 votes were needed. Then, the board voted 10-4 against updating the GO TO 2040 plan.

The ball is in the MPO's court but Howard Learner of the Environmental Law and Policy Center says state law actually prevents the group from a legitimate vote if the CMAP board didn't approve GO TO 2040. The group has sued over the issue, claiming the MPO essentially lacked authority to override CMAP.

However, a recent letter from the U.S. Department of Transportation to IDOT administrators states that CMAP's vote in only "advisory in nature," as regards GO TO 2040. "The MPO is the federally recognized transportation planning decision-making body for the region," federal transportation official Catherine Batey said.

IDOT officials commented that "moving forward with the Illiana Expressway is the right thing to do for the South suburbs, the entire region and the state.

"The Illiana has drawn strong interest from the (public-private partnership) industry, including from international firms with extensive backgrounds in building similar projects around the world," IDOT spokesman Guy Tridgell said.

Suburban officials voting for the Illiana on CMAP included Aurora Mayor Tom Weisner from Kane County, former Villa Park Village President Rae Rupp Srch from DuPage County and Bolingbrook Mayor Roger Claar from Will County.

Srch said her vote was a reluctant yes but she was following the advice of DuPage County leaders, including Chairman Dan Cronin.

McHenry County Board member Carolyn Schofield and former Buffalo Grove Mayor Elliott Hartstein of Lake County voted against the project.

IDOT estimates construction jobs should total about 9,000 and permanent jobs, mostly in freight and manufacturing, would amount to around 28,000.

However, critics say the project would drain jobs out of Illinois into Indiana, hurting employment in Chicago, Cook and the collar counties excepting Will County.

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