Illiana Expressway plan looks like it will pass
If I could get away with it, I'd start accepting bets on the fate of the Illiana Expressway when it goes to a vote Thursday before a powerful committee of the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning.
My crystal ball gives the edge to the Illiana and powerful proponent Gov. Pat Quinn. But first, a little background on the proposed public-private tollway connecting I-55 near Joliet with I-65 near Merrillville, Ind., that's split the North and West suburbs amid accusations of political arm-twisting.
Quinn, who is in a re-election campaign, and the Illinois Department of Transportation are hot on the expressway. IDOT projects the Illiana will create a gazillion jobs (slight exaggeration), catapult rural Will County into a freight mecca, ease traffic jams in Chicago and the suburbs, and cost the taxpayers a mere $950 million for construction.
CMAP analysts -- to put it technically -- think the Illiana is a stupid idea that will cost taxpayers up to $1.1 billion, suck jobs out of the six-county region, barely touch gridlock in the metro area and add to exurban sprawl.
The controversial highway in "nowheresville" has blown up traditional alliances with Democrats Quinn and Mayor Rahm Emanuel parting ways on it.
Meanwhile, Republican DuPage Chairman Dan Cronin and Democratic Will County Executive Larry Walsh are in Camp Illiana while Democratic Cook County President Toni Preckwinkle and Republican McHenry County Chairman Tina Hill are both underwhelmed by the project.
On Thursday, a CMAP panel dubbed the Metropolitan Planning Organization Policy Committee will cast the deciding vote on whether to include the Illiana in a list of priority projects in the agency's GO TO 2040 plan. Getting on the list -- which includes the Route 53 extension, the CTA Red Line redo and the Elgin-O'Hare Expressway -- means the Illiana is eligible for the federal funding that it desperately needs.
Illiana haters warned at a meeting last week that Quinn and his minions are wooing CMAP and MPO voting members (who include county chairmen, transit agencies and transportation industry representatives) with promises of support for local road projects.
The governor's office has denied any quid pro quo, as has DuPage's Cronin, who said the Illiana will provide an economic boost for the area.
But "I'm becoming so popular, I'm becoming suspicious," Kendall County Chairman John Shaw said, explaining he's received calls from the likes of IDOT Secretary Ann Schneider but is still undecided.
With help from my crystal ball, I forecast the odds are in the Illiana's favor. How did we reach this unscientific conclusion?
There are 19 voting members on the MPO who will decide if the Illiana gets to be a priority project.
The likely "no" votes total six: former Buffalo Grove Village President Elliott Hartstein, Metropolis Strategies CEO Frank Beal, plus Cook, Chicago, CTA and McHenry officials.
The likely "yes" votes total eight: Batavia Mayor Jeffrey Schielke, plus officials from DuPage and Will counties, Pace, Metra, Union Pacific Railroad, IDOT and the Illinois tollway.
That leaves five MPO votes in play. Fence-sitters so far are Kane County Chairman Chris Lauzen, Lake County Chairman Aaron Lawlor, Kendall County's Shaw, the Regional Transportation Authority and Continental Airport Express.
If we break it down further:
• The RTA abstained previously and might continue the low profile given that it can't please anyone in this instance.
• For the record, Lauzen's deputy director of transportation voted for the Illiana.
• And DePaul University transportation expert Joseph Schwieterman speculated O'Hare and Midway bus service Continental Airport Express sides with Chicago against the road.
"The industry finds itself between a rock and a hard place voting against the wishes of the mayor or governor," said Schwieterman, who heads up DePaul's Chaddick Institute for Metropolitan Development.
Of course, if anyone else abstains or goes rogue, it's a whole new ballgame. Which way do you think it will go? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
One more thing
Politics aside, Schwieterman said he's disappointed the region isn't exploring extending I-355 south to the Illiana footprint.
"My big disappointment is the alignment does so little for the Illinois side," Schwieterman said. "I thought it was inevitable I-355 would be extended. Then it becomes a whole different corridor, offering true relief from I-80."
You should know
A few weeks ago, I profiled Metra's interim CEO Don Orseno, who's trying to calm the agency's troubled waters after his former boss Alex Clifford made a dramatic exit this June. Clifford accused two board directors of conflict of interest involving contracts and of condoning political pressure over jobs.
Orseno said he wants Metra's tarnished reputation restored.
"If we make the right decisions, hire the right people and make sound business decisions, people will have trust in us. We want people to come in who are qualified -- but they have to come in through the front door," he told me.
So when I became aware that some of Orseno's family members work at Metra, I asked the former train engineer about it. His brother Richard Orseno Jr. and brother-in-law Glen Wagner are conductors receiving $86,300 and $92,700 a year, respectively. Richard Orseno's brother-in-law Scott Schaefer also is employed by Metra as a technical specialist in its GPS center, making $49,000 a year. Don Orseno's sister also previously worked at the agency.
Asked if there's a conflict of interest regarding salaries, Orseno said his relatives hold union positions. "It's all by contract; the pay structure is negotiated through the unions like any union employee," he said.
"We have a whole department that negotiates the union contracts. I'm not involved too much in those until it's time to sign the agreements."
Orseno, who came to Metra in 1984 from the Chicago & North Western Railway, said he did not intervene in the hiring of any family members. He noted his grandfather was a railroader for 50 years and his father for 47.
"It's not uncommon ... it's like fire or police families," he said. "I always dreamed of working for the railroad."
Loved the letters you sent on the Illiana, including one from Jim Osebold of Arlington Heights.
Osebold writes, "It's a boondoggle! I can't believe that any sane (or honest) person would support this incredible waste of money. The stated benefits -- primarily new jobs and new growth -- are completely overstated and the costs are no doubt grossly understated. One wonders just how many greasy fingers are in this only-in-Illinois pie. A simple glance at the map shows that smack in the middle of this unplanned-for highway is the unplanned-for Peotone airport, which no one needs."
• Jane Addams Tollway (I-90) drivers should watch out for changing traffic patterns on the I-47 interchange under construction. Northbound Route 47 drivers will be shifted to the spanking new northbound bridge with one lane in each direction. Plus I-90 traffic going to and from the east can test drive some new ramps.
What about the Ike?There's still time to comment on the Illinois Department of Transportation's proposals to fix gridlock on the Eisenhower Expressway. The study area extends from Hillside to Racine Avenue in Chicago. The deadline to opine runs through Nov. 7. To learn more, go to www.eisenhowerexpressway .com.