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National Editorials & Columns

Put the brakes on Illiana Expressway

The Illinois Department of Transportation is playing defense over the proposed Illiana Expressway, an east-west toll road that would connect Interstate 55 in southern Will County to I-65 in southern Lake County, Ind.

With two potential make-or-break votes coming up next month, critics have cranked up the volume. The nonprofit Metropolitan Planning Council says the project – promoted by Gov. Pat Quinn as an employment and development engine – won’t generate the jobs or the economic boost promised and will do little to relieve traffic congestion throughout the region.

Since 2006, IDOT has been working with its Indiana counterpart, INDOT, to draft a plan for the expressway. Based on distance, Illinois’ share of the projected $1.25 billion cost would be $950 million.

IDOT says the expressway, to be built in partnership with a private developer, would pay for itself by 2023. But the MPC is skeptical of the state’s traffic projections and worries about the risk to taxpayers if toll revenues come up short.

The group has urged the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning not to add the Illiana to its comprehensive plan, called GO TO 2040. CMAP is charged with prioritizing regional transportation projects that compete for limited federal money. If the Illiana doesn’t make the list, it’s all but dead.

CMAP’s own staff analysis is hardly encouraging. It challenges IDOT’s numbers, suggesting the costs are underestimated and the transportation benefits overstated. That analysis isn’t meant to be a thumbs-up or thumbs-down – an official staff recommendation is expected this week – but the writing is on the wall. This project isn’t consistent with CMAP’s vision for the region.

A monthlong public comment period ended with 169 weighing in in favor and 796 against, plus thousands of signatures on two petitions opposing the project. Three environmental groups have sued to block the project.

The 47-mile toll road is envisioned mainly as a trucking corridor, serving the Southland’s growing intermodal freight system. It’s meant to relieve congestion on I-80 and on local roads that are crowded with trucks seeking to avoid that traffic. It would pass just south of the planned south suburban airport near Peotone.

For local businesses and governments, the need for the Illiana is a no-brainer. Will County was among the nation’s fastest growing counties from 2000 to 2008, as the region’s population continued its outward migration from Chicago to the inner suburbs to the exurbs.

But the recession slowed that trend. And the debate over the Illiana is largely about whether regional planners should assume that growth will resume and build the infrastructure to support it – or try to arrest the pattern in favor of more controlled development.

Even under IDOT’s traffic projections, MPC points out that the Illiana would move fewer vehicles per day (26,300) than Irving Park Road (35,400). Sure, it’s apples and oranges. But that’s not a very big number, especially since we’re talking about 47 miles and $1.25 billion.

For Quinn, road construction is less about moving vehicles from Point A to Point B than about creating jobs (and cutting ribbons). But whatever jobs are generated by the Illiana likely will come at the expense of Chicago and the Cook County suburbs

Tell us again – why is this a good idea?

The Chicago Tribune

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