Illiana gets go-ahead from planning board

The political chewtoy that is the Illiana Expressway might have received the definitive go-ahead Thursday after a close vote in favor of the project by the Metropolitan Planning Organization.

Usually decisions by the MPO and its sister agency, the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, are wonky affairs. But fierce opposition from those who consider the Illiana a road to nowhere and powerful backers like Gov. Pat Quinn who say it will be an economic boon for Will County have put the issue front and center.

A motion to kick the Illiana off the region's GO TO 2040 plan, a blueprint for growth in the region, failed 10 to 8. MPO board members voted to approve GO TO 2040 including the expressway by a 12 to 6 vote, thus qualifying it for federal funding.

Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning leaders voted Wednesday to reject the project. However, the outcome, 10-4, was not a sufficient supermajority since 12 votes are required.

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.

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 the MPO approved it then, too. The MPO, which includes transit officials and county chairman, is viewed as more political than the CMAP board.

There is some dispute over whose vote trumps who. The Environmental Law and Policy Center has sued, arguing the Metropolitan Planning Organization's vote for the expressway wasn't valid because the CMAP board voted against it. But the U.S. Department of Transportation recently stated that the MPO has authority over plans like GO TO 2040.

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.

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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