A key decision Thursday from a Chicago regional planning committee to approve the Illiana Expressway drew applause from a slew of elected officials and other supporters, but critics maintain that the proposed 47-mile tollway is a "train wreck" for public transportation and the environment. Progress Illinois takes a look at some of the pros and cons of the project.
A key decision Thursday from a Chicago regional planning committee to approve the Illiana Expressway drew applause from a slew of elected officials and other supporters, but critics maintain that the proposed 47-mile tollway is a "train wreck" for public transportation and the environment.
The Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) Policy Committee, which under federal law has to approve significant transportation projects, voted 11-8 to add the $1.3 billion Illiana Corridor, connecting I-55 in Illinois to I-65 in Indiana, to the list of priorities in the Go To 2040 Plan.
Including the project in the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning's (CMAP) Go To 2040 comprehensive regional plan makes it eligible for federal funding. The Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT) can also start to obtain bids from a private team to finance and build the Illiana Corridor project. The bidding process for the public-private partnership endeavor, the first of its kind in Illinois, would likely open up in November, said Illinois Transportation Secretary Anne Schneider, who also chairs the MPO Policy Committee.
The policy committee, comprised of local transit agency officials and county board chairmen in northeast Illinois, also gave IDOT the go-ahead to use more than $80 million for additional engineering and land acquisition-related costs. The Chicago Tribune reported that the state transportation department has already shelled out about $40 million so far during the project's planning process.
The tollway, to be funded by state transportation dollars and tolls, would serve mainly as a trucking corridor in the bi-state region and would reportedly provide local and regional congestion relief, according to studies from the Illinois and Indiana transportation departments.
Gov. Pat Quinn touted the planning committee's vote as a big economic win for the Southland region and the state.
“Today marks a major victory for economic development and jobs in the Southland, which will strengthen Illinois’ economy and pave the way for future growth,” Quinn said in a statement. “I applaud the members of the MPO Policy Committee for making the Illiana a priority. This regional highway will not only serve the largest and fastest growing areas in Illinois, it will have a long-term economic impact of more than $4 billion in the region.”
According to the governor's office, the project is expected to create more than 9,000 construction jobs and 28,000 long-term jobs.
But not all transportation analysts have given the Illiana Expressway their blessing.
Last week, CMAP's board voted against including the Illiana Corridor in the Go To 2040 plan, saying the proposed project is a considerable financial risk to the state. Among other concerns, CMAP's analysis found that the project will likely require significantly more in public finances, from $440 million to potentially over $1 billion. This type of public subsidy may lead to prioritizing Illiana's implementation at the expense of existing projects in the comprehensive regional plan, according to CMAP.
State transportation officials and others, however, have said that the project's construction would not move forward if private investors find it to be fiscally impractical.
U.S. Rep. Robin Kelly (D-IL,2), a strong supporter of the project, wrote in a Chicago Tribune editorial on Thursday that CMAP's decision to oppose the Illiana Corridor was "rooted in regional bias rather than sound strategic planning" and "belies the realities of the future transportation needs of the Chicagoland area."
During remarks at Thursday's committee meeting, Kelly also noted that, “Chicago’s Southland is America’s ground zero for transportation innovation."
“There’s been a lot of debate about the Illiana over the past year, some of it enlightening and constructive and some of it, quite frankly, disrespectful and utterly unproductive. At its core, the opposition to the Illiana is based on a longstanding bias against the Southland when it comes to infrastructure investment,” Kelly said. “But the Southland is just as worthy of development, just as deserving of improved infrastructure as any other area of the region. We have the people and the businesses to not only support the Illiana, but who make the roadway a vital conduit to economic development in the area.
She also took to task opponents who say the bi-state toll road is not economically viable.
“Regional business leaders, labor leaders, political leaders of both parties from all levels of government – all of us have united in support of the Illiana. It’s a rare solidarity fostered by the great potential for regional growth that the Illiana represents," she said. “We need this road. We believe in this road. We have devised an innovative public private partnership to pay for this road."
In addition to Kelly, U.S. Reps. Bill Foster (D-IL,11) and Adam Kinzinger (R-IL,16) as well as U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL) have thrown their support behind the expressway.
"The Illiana is a much needed investment to provide relief to the communities that are bearing the brunt of freight traffic in the region, support ongoing economic development and create jobs," Foster said in a statement. “I am also pleased that this project is moving forward as a public-private partnership. As a businessman I believe that a well-executed public-private partnership is a useful tool to support truly essential and economically viable projects."
But Ron Burke, executive director of the Active Transportation Alliance, maintains that private funding will not cover the expressway's full costs, leaving taxpayers with the tab. As a result, the Illiana project would suck up more dollars that otherwise could be used for a laundry list of Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) and Metra improvements, as well as new efforts like a Red Line extension to 135th Street, a West Loop Transit Center and modernization of Union Station, to name a few.
Other critics also argue that the bi-state toll road does not align with the goals of the region’s long-term transportation plan.
As part of the final Go To 2040 Plan, adopted in 2010, there was a commitment to targeting limited public dollars on transportation projects centered around existing communities, explained Jack Darin, director of the Sierra Club's Illinois Chapter.
That strategy is a better deal for the taxpayer than the Illiana project, Darin said, because it helps more people get around the region. It is also better for air quality when people travel shorter distances and have a variety of transportation options other than their car, he noted.
"This [Illiana] decision is a blow to years of effort by thousands of people in the region to choose a smarter, better way to grow, and now I think that the region needs to recommit to that vision," Darin told Progress Illinois. "This was a political override of a plan that everyone agreed to that was years in the making, and [it] was potentially undone yesterday by the votes of 11 people."
Burke specifically slammed the Metra and Pace representatives for voting in favor of the project at Thursday's meeting. If the two agencies voted 'no', the proposal would have failed, he said.
“Our region’s transit system is undermined by transit agency board members whose main allegiance is to the people who appoint them and not to creating better transit,” Burke said in a statement. “Yesterday’s vote is another example of that fact. The Illiana Expressway is a train wreck for transit, and Metra and Pace voted for it anyway.”
Burke went on to say that the vote, in his opinion, didn't help to clean up Metra's scandal-plagued public image and "other missteps that demonstrate political influence on transit boards."
“Calls for reform are already echoing across the region to eliminate political influence on transit boards and prevent future scandals,” he stressed. “Metra and Pace had a chance yesterday to restore public’s trust in transit leadership. Instead their votes ought to make those calls louder.”
Committee representatives from the CTA and the Regional Transportation Authority voted against the Illiana.
Environmentalists, as well as a number of residents in the area, are also up in arms about the proposed expressway, saying it would pollute and destroy wetlands and farms, among other detrimental impacts.
"There are real local concerns about what paving over the rural area would do locally," Darin said. "It would bring a steady stream of truck traffic right through the heart of the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie."
Additionally, Darin said the Illiana road itself and development that comes with it would pave over the north half of the Kankakee River watershed, which provides drinking water for the city of Kankakee and parts of Will County. He said the water source is currently much cleaner than others in the Chicago region.
"We'd like to keep it that way," he stressed.
A public hearing on the toll road's proposed location is scheduled for later this year, according to the governor's office. The public will also have the opportunity to provide input on the project during the state and federal agency and public-private partnership approval process. Overall, the planning process is expected to wrap up in early 2014.