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EDITORIAL: Too Much Risk for Taxpayers With Illiana

Story originally published here.

Like it or not, the task of setting spending priorities is about picking winners and losers. So let’s talk about who wins, and who loses, if the Illiana Expressway speeds forward.

Will County would get a trucking corridor to service its growing intermodal network. Drivers on crowded I-80 would get some relief, assuming enough of them are willing to drive several miles out of their way and pay hefty tolls to take the Illiana instead. Gov. Pat Quinn would score major points with Southland voters.

And Illinois taxpayers could be stuck paying up to $1.1 billion to subsidize a toll road that moves fewer vehicles per day than Chicago’s Irving Park Road.

It’s a lopsided ledger, and it ought to earn the Illiana a resounding “no” vote Thursday, when the Metropolitan Planning Organization Policy Committee decides whether to add the project to its short list of regional transportation priorities.

The Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, which normally works in tandem with the policy committee, voted 10-4 last week not to amend its strategic plan, known as GO TO 2040, to include the Illiana. A CMAP staff analysis slammed the proposal, saying it was “broadly incompatible” with the regional consensus behind that blueprint.

GO TO 2040 promotes investment in roads and other infrastructure close to existing development, rather than spending scarce public dollars keeping up with poorly organized sprawl. The plan was approved three years ago by both the CMAP and MPO boards. But the MPO could decide to chuck it out the window on Thursday.

Why would the boards come down on opposite sides of this vote? The CMAP board members represent the region’s seven counties and the city of Chicago. Its members were subjected to “high pressure” from Quinn and the Illinois Department of Transportation before last week’s vote, according to CMAP chairman Gerald Bennett. The policy board also includes representatives from transit agencies, railroads and private transportation companies as well as the Illinois State Toll Highway Authority and IDOT — a lineup even more vulnerable to political arm-twisting.

A joint project of IDOT and its Indiana counterpart, the 47-mile Illiana would connect I-55 in southern Will County to I-65 in southern Lake County, Ind. It would be built in partnership with a private developer.

IDOT says the Illiana would pay for itself by 2053, but it can’t provide the numbers to back that up because it needs to protect negotiations with potential private partners. So the CMAP staff worked up some hypotheticals, none of which support IDOT’s rosy outlook.

Under the staff’s most optimistic scenario — low interest rates, healthy toll revenues, on-target construction and maintenance costs — taxpayers would have to contribute $440 million over 35 years. Under the pessimistic scenario, the subsidy would be $1.1 billion.

CMAP staff says Quinn and IDOT have oversold the project: It would have a “negligible” effect on overall traffic congestion. It won’t deliver the promised economic boost. And whatever jobs are created will come at the expense of the Chicago region. Many of them will end up across the state line. So let’s add Indiana to the “winners” column.

And let’s talk some more about losers. Money spent on one project is money that’s not available for others. If taxpayers have to prop up a new toll road in southern Will County, they’ll have less to spend on highways in Lake or Kendall counties. And it should be unthinkable for representatives of the mass transit agencies — Metra, Pace, the Regional Transportation Authority — to vote “yes” on the Illiana. How does that serve their riders? We hope they’re prepared to answer that question, again and again, if they vote “yes” on Thursday.

The projects on the GO TO 2040 list are supposed to address the region’s most urgent transportation needs. The Illiana Expressway doesn’t belong on that list.

If you think you may be affected by the Illiana Expressway and/or are interested in a free consultation, contact our eminent domain landowner attorneys at 1-888-318-3761 or visit us on the web at


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