Crucial votes loom for Illiana proposal

Controversial highway could be boon or boondoggle
September 20, 2013|By Richard Wronski, Chicago Tribune reporter

A showdown looms on the Illiana Corridor, a pet project of Gov. Pat Quinn, who touts the proposed superhighway as a jobs-generating engine for the state’s economy, but which opponents charge could be a billion-dollar boondoggle.

For the past two years, transportation officials from Illinois and Indiana have spent tens of millions of dollars drafting plans for the Illiana, a 47-mile roadway across southern Will County linking Interstate 55 near Wilmington with I-65 near Lowell, Ind.

With a price tag of at least $1.25 billion but no state or federal money earmarked for its construction, officials are proposing that the Illiana be built as a toll road in partnership with private developers, a first-of-its-kind project for Illinois.

A crucial decision on the Illiana is expected Oct. 9 from two important but low-profile governmental panels: the governing board at the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, or CMAP, which oversees northeastern Illinois’ land use and transportation strategy, and a companion board known as the MPO Policy Committee.

Proponents say the Illiana will alleviate local congestion — primarily truck traffic resulting from Will County’s burgeoning number of intermodal freight centers and warehouses — create thousands of jobs and boost economic growth.

“By providing new capacity and connectivity with the interstate system at I-55, I-57 and I-65, the Illiana will improve regional mobility and the efficient movement of freight,” Will County Executive Lawrence Walsh said in a letter supporting the project. “Congestion and delay on I-80, as well as on I-55 threaten productivity, safety and quality of life in the region.”

Towns like Wilmington, Peotone and Beecher say they need relief from trucks choking their communities.

“Currently heavy truck and commuter traffic try to avoid I-80 congestion by using local roads to cross between Illinois and Indiana, roads that were never designed or intended to be used for this purpose,” said Peotone Village President Richard Duran.

But critics contend that the toll road might prove to be a flop economically — with taxpayers ultimately picking up the tab — and could divert scarce transportation dollars from other projects. An independent civic group, the Chicago-based Metropolitan Planning Council, believes the Illiana “would yield few benefits in exchange for high — and uncertain — costs” and put taxpayers at risk if it fails to generate enough toll revenue.

The group predicts the Illiana will fail to address the region’s transportation needs and will do little to improve the economy.

Some rural Will County residents say the project will change their way of life.

“This isn’t vacant land, it’s productive farmland,” said Virginia Gates-Hamann, whose family has farmed the Peotone area for generations. “If you pave over this … it’s like Chernobyl. You will forever poison the land, and you won’t grow anything there again.”

A controversial corridor

Transportation planners in both states have produced thousands of pages of detailed analyses and projections. Scores of meetings have been held in Will County and Lake County, Ind., for property owners and “stakeholders,” those potentially affected.

Nearly 1,000 public comments for and against the project have been submitted to CMAP.

Officials from the Illinois Department of Transportation and their counterparts in Indiana have been working together on the project since 2006. Quinn and Indiana’s then-Gov. Mitch Daniels signed an agreement in 2010 pledging mutual support.

Choosing from several alternatives, officials last year selected a path, officially known as Corridor B3, through Will County and Lake County, Ind. Officials say it provides the most traffic benefits with the fewest detriments.

The corridor would pass directly south of the site of the proposed south suburban airport, near Peotone, another project that Quinn strongly supports and would go hand in hand with the Illiana. In July, Quinn signed legislation giving IDOT the power to enter into a public-private partnership for the airport’s development, financing and operation.

Under federal rules, for the Illiana to go forward, it must be included in CMAP’s comprehensive plan, GO TO 2040. When the CMAP board and a federally designated metropolitan planning organization for northeastern Illinois — officially known as the MPO Policy Committee — meet Oct. 9, they will consider amending the plan to include the Illiana.

A similar approval process must be followed by the Northwest Indiana Regional Planning Commission.

CMAP’s staff is expected to make a formal recommendation on the project later this month. The staff already has conducted a detailed analysis of IDOT’s plans for the Illiana.

A CMAP spokesman said the analysis was not meant to take sides in the Illiana debate, but some proponents thought it did just that. The report challenged some of the conclusions and methodology in IDOT’s plans. For example, the CMAP analysis found that IDOT’s estimated cost of the project is much lower than that of other highway projects.

The analysis determined that the per-lane-mile construction cost of the Illiana would be $8.1 million (in 2020 dollars). That is much less than the $18.9 million per-lane-mile cost of the I-355 south extension, and the $25.3 million per-lane-mile cost for the proposed Illinois Route 53 extension in the north suburbs, the analysis noted.

The CMAP analysis said it couldn’t find a recently constructed highway anywhere else in the U.S. with lower per-lane mile costs than the estimate for the Illiana.

In response, IDOT said two comparable projects were less expensive. The cost of a section of I-69 in Indiana was $2.1 million per lane-mile, while the U.S. Highway 7 project in Morgan County, Ill., was $6.1 million per mile.

The CMAP analysis determined that the Illiana plans call for adding lanes to 33 miles of existing highways, including I-80 from I-355 to Minooka, and I-55 from I-80 to Braidwood. Doing so would cost $1.5 billion, in addition to the $1.25 billion cost of the Illiana itself, the analysis noted.

CMAP staffers asked for a detailed description of the Illiana’s funding and financing, but IDOT responded that the information is not publicly available because of a need for confidentiality in soliciting private investment for the project.

Differing cost estimates

The CMAP analysis cautioned that construction of a private toll facility could involve a high level of risk.

Although the Illiana would likely be tolled, IDOT has not made public data on motorists’ willingness to pay tolls or the impact that would have on travel demand, the analysis said.

“Since the Illiana is intended to primarily serve freight movement, assessment of heavy truck users passing through the region will be a critical component of any tolling analysis,” the CMAP analysis said.

Regarding traffic congestion, the CMAP analysis found that the Illiana would bring minimal relief, if any, to the region and its existing expressways.

Citing IDOT data, the Metropolitan Planning Council, which opposes the Illiana, said that only 8,800 to 26,300 vehicles per day would use the Illiana. By comparison, Irving Park Road in Chicago has 35,400 vehicles per day; Cermak Road in Cicero has 33,900; and I-80 carries more than 180,000 vehicles per day, the group said.

IDOT contends that the Illiana “would be a strong trucking corridor.”

CMAP and IDOT came up with widely different estimates of the Illiana’s impact. CMAP predicted that the Illiana would increase the gross regional product by $425 million in 2040. IDOT estimated the Illiana would bring a $2 billion increase.

IDOT disputes some of the CMAP conclusions, including the cost comparisons and forecasts.

IDOT Secretary Ann Schneider also warned that if CMAP and the MPO Policy Committee do not include the Illiana in the comprehensive plan, about $40 million already spent on planning would be lost, and the search for a private-sector partner would be halted.

Supporters of the route include chambers of commerce and economic development groups; construction companies; road and transportation trade associations; labor unions; Will, Grundy and Kankakee counties; and several municipalities.

On Wednesday, several south suburban legislators held a news conference to back the Illiana.

State Rep. Al Riley, D-Hazel Crest, said CMAP’s analysis “appears to be aimed at interfering with a project that will bring jobs, economic development and relieve traffic congestion in our region.”

Opponents include farmers; civic organizations; environmental groups, especially those advocating for the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, near Wilmington; and Cook and McHenry counties.

Petitions with about 3,700 signatures have been filed by grass-roots groups opposed to the project.

[email protected] Twitter @richwronski

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