Southland mayor again hopes to kill plan for Illiana Tollway

A Southland mayor who heads a key transportation planning agency says he will try to kill the Illiana Tollway this week because it would put taxpayers “on the hook for as much as $1 billion.”

Palos Hills Mayor Gerald Bennett, board chairman of the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP), said the tollway cannot work as a public-private partnership as envisioned by the state and that taxpayers would have to take on “all the risk, not private investors.”

A crucial CMAP vote is expected Wednesday that could determine the future of the controversial project.

However, another mayor remains strongly supportive of the tollway.

“I’m going to vote in support of the project just as I voted in support of it last year,” said Richton Park Mayor Rick Reinbold, who is also on the CMAP board. “A recent Federal Highway Administration report said this project would create 13,000 construction jobs, thousands of long-term jobs, $1.2 billion in wages and nearly $4 billion in long-term economic development.

“We’re talking about an area, my area, that is in desperate need of jobs and development. So I support this plan for purely selfish reasons.”

Last year, Bennett called the Illiana Tollway a “highway to nowhere” when his board voted 10-4 to not support it. He accused Gov. Pat Quinn at the time of applying unprecedented pressure on CMAP to approve the Illiana.

The 47-mile road would connect Interstate 55 near Wilmington with I-65 near Lowell, Indiana, and would cost an estimated $1.5 billion. Under Quinn’s plan, the toll road would be constructed through a public-private partnership with toll revenue paying off the bonds sold to build it.

Last year, the Metropolitan Planning Organization, the official decision-making body for all regional transportation programs, overrode CMAP’s vote and kept the tollway alive.

That organization’s board has a meeting scheduled for Thursday — the day after CMAP’s scheduled vote on its Go To 2040 long-range regional transportation plan, and the MPO board could again override any decision to stall the toll road.

Bennett has asked that a separate vote be taken to remove the Illiana Tollway from CMAP’s 2040 plan. He recently wrote a letter to the acting secretary for the Illinois Department of Transportation, asking for a rules change on MPO policy-making decisions.

Instead of a simple majority vote for approval (which is how the MPO board approved the Illiana last year), Bennett wants the board to change its bylaws to require a supermajority, a standard that the tollway project would be unlikely to meet.

“It’s changing the rules because you don’t like the outcome,” said state Rep. Al Riley, D-Olympia Fields, a strong proponent of the Illiana Tollway.

Last year, after Bennett’s “road to nowhere” comment, Riley called the Southland “Forgottonia,” claiming it has often been ignored by policymakers in Illinois.

On Monday, Riley wondered aloud why questions always arise about the viability of Southland transportation projects, such as the South Suburban Airport and the planned tollway, but similar questions are rarely raised about projects such as construction of a western access road to O’Hare International Airport or the multibillion-dollar expansion of O’Hare.

“We have a population of between 750,000 and 1 million people out here, which would make it a larger city than St. Louis,” Riley said. “We have the largest inland port in the country. And I-80 (the major east-west highway between Illinois and Indiana) has become a hellhole due to all the truck traffic on it.

“This (tollway) project has been vetted and approved by all sorts of agencies, state and federal. You form a public-private partnership for a project like this because if it is not viable, if it makes no sense, private companies won’t invest in it. And then that’s it, it’s dead.

“But you have three or four bidders that are deeply interested in doing this project because it is needed and it is viable.”

Bennett said CMAP staff reports indicate that tolls on the Illiana would have to be $18, and projections are it would relieve less than 10 percent of the traffic on existing roads, attracting only about 18,000 to 20,000 vehicles per day.

“LaGrange Road carries that much traffic,” he said.

Bennett contends that transportation funds would be better spent on expanding I-80 and I-55 in the Southland.

“I’m more convinced that this project would be a disaster than I was last year,” he said.

Bennett said CMAP and MPO were originally scheduled to hold a joint meeting on Wednesday, but the MPO board decided to hold its own meeting on Thursday.

“That’s the same thing that happened last year and you know it’s because of the Illiana,” he said.

In a statement emailed to me, Erica Borggren, IDOT’s acting secretary states that the “MPO Policy Committee weighed the merits of the project and rightfully added the Illiana (Tollway) to the regional transportation plan last year. “At this stage in the regional planning process, the upcoming CMAP and Policy Committee votes are about consistent, reliable regional decision-making, not about the Illiana.

“We are working hard to see that the Illiana (Tollway) remains a part of the regional transportation vision, both on the merits of the project itself and on the basis of needing consistent regional planning.”

I haven’t been a big booster of the Illiana project. But I understand that the growth of intermodal facilities in the Southland, where cargo is transferred from truck to train and vice versa, has generated an enormous amount of truck traffic on I-80.

There are plans for even more intermodal centers in the Southland. If IDOT’s plans for the South Suburban Airport are successful, it will likely be a magnet for cargo traffic generated by those intermodal facilities, requiring a major east-west highway.

The planning for all of that needs to take place now, and the Illiana Tollway is the only logical alternative because government financing for such a highway isn’t available.

It’s strange how every development plan for the Southland attracts criticism, especially from Chicago.

By Phil Kadner pkadner@southtownstar.com – Updated October 7, 2014 2:10 AM

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