Editorial: Don't be distracted by allure of southern tollway

  • Illiana Expressway

    Graphic: Illiana Expressway (click image to open)

  • CMAP 2040 employment forecast

    Graphic: CMAP 2040 employment forecast (click image to open)

The Daily Herald Editorial Board
Posted10/8/2013 8:17 AM

For a timely example of the maxim that the lure of good consequences can produce bad projects, consider the Illiana expressway.

This proposed east-west tollway linking I-55 near Joliet to I-65 just south of Merrillville, Ind., would produce thousands of much-needed jobs and incorporate private enterprise into partnership with government in developing the funding formula. Both are excellent goals. But they are not enough to merit the costs of the project, nor, particularly, to justify the substantial diversion of resources from more urgent and more appropriate projects elsewhere in northwest Illinois -- especially here in the suburbs.


As part of the process for acquiring federal funding for Illiana, the proposal is scheduled to be voted on by the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning this week, followed later in the month by a vote from the Metropolitan Planning Organization, which has the authority to overrule CMAP. If both organizations stay out of the political fray and simply examine the highway on its merits, they will follow the advice of the CMAP staff and reject the expressway.

Not that the Illiana expressway is inherently without value. The 47-mile roadway would surely provide opportunities for commerce and alleviate some of the Illinois-Indiana congestion that clogs the Borman Expressway to the north.

But, as the CMAP staff and other planning agencies have shown, the road would not do enough to help traffic flow or to produce commercial growth to justify its at least $1.3 billion cost. Worse, it directly conflicts with the CMAP and GO TO 2040 visions for the region, which call for concentrating the application of transportation funding in Chicago and the immediate suburbs.

This proposal shifts resources from that vision and produces an expensive distraction whose only real potential strength would be to supplement access to a far South suburban airport at Peotone -- a project that, even if it is ever built at all, is at best decades away.

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State transportation authorities contend that the CMAP staff's opposition to Illiana is "simplistic and misleading," but given the political forces at work here and the CMAP staff's mandate to stick to that agency's defined mission, the opposite assessment seems more likely. After all, even discounting the impressive statistical analysis the CMAP staff brings into the equation, who would be most inclined to overstate benefits and understate costs, a politically nonaligned research group or a state agency largely beholden to the governor, for whom this highway would be a prize political plum, and the wide range of special interests supporting him?

The data and the policy directions are clear. Illiana would be bad for the suburbs and Chicago and would do little to help any other part of the state. The notion of a private-public partnership sounds alluring, as do the thousands of jobs the construction would require. But over the long-term, taxpayers well may find themselves holding a multi-billion- dollar bag if the project does not prove profitable, and those thousands of jobs are just as beneficial within the existing GO TO 2040 framework as for projects that take focus away from CMAP's studiously conceived and widely endorsed regional vision.

Both CMAP and MPO should refuse to let their work be diffused and distracted by attractive political ideas with little practical benefit.

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