Despite opposition, Illiana stays in Illinois’ long-term road plans

By Susan DeMar Lafferty [email protected] Updated: September 11, 2014 2:11AM

Despite overwhelming opposition to the proposed Illiana Tollway, members of a regional transportation panel on Wednesday kept the project in its long-term plan against opponents’ wishes.

The Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning discussed the revisions to its regional transportation plan, dubbed GO TO 2040, Wednesday morning and will vote on its final approval Oct. 8 in a meeting with the Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) Policy Committee.

Wednesday’s discussion gave no clear sense of how board members will vote next month, said Justine Reisinger, CMAP’s communications senior.

In a Tuesday meeting of the Will County board’s legislative and policy committee, State Rep. Al Riley, D-Hazel Crest, said he planned to send a letter urging CMAP members to not let politics interfere with the project.

“No one has anything meaningful to prove that it will not help this area,” Riley said. “The Illiana is needed.”

Will County Board member Jim Moustis, R-Frankfort, said the Illiana Tollway would provide an “extremely important connection” from I-57 in Wilmington to I-65 in Indiana.

“This highway is not only important for general transportation but for the economy of this state,” he said.

Riley said two other transportation projects are also important to the region — the extension of the CTA Red Line from 95th to 130th streets and the Southeast Metra Service to Crete. Both of those are also listed in CMAP’s GO TO 2040.

The revised draft, presented to the CMAP board Wednesday, noted there was “significant debate” regarding the Illiana with over 600 form letters submitted by the Environmental Law and Policy Center and the Sierra Club, which have filed lawsuits against the project. The public also submitted 150 original comments.

Those against it claimed the proposed tollway would cost prime farmland, degrade the environment and create a financial burden on Illinois taxpayers, according to the report.

Many also questioned the project’s consistency with the principles of sustainable growth for the region at the core of GO TO 2040, the report said.

Meanwhile, the agency also added comments to its plan, reflecting these concerns and noted in the revision that there is a need to protect the region’s open and green space. It also stated it “will be important to consider the environmental and local community impacts, as well as to protect the public interest in the Public Private Partnership funding structure, as much as possible.”

The GO TO 2040 plan coordinates and prioritizes the Chicago region’s major transportation projects by considering funding options, reducing congestion, increasing transportation options and making freight efficient. The proposed tollway — initially rejected by CMAP — was amended into the plan by vote of the MPO Policy Committee in 2013 and has been included on the fiscally constrained major capital projects list.

This revision was federally mandated, which required a public comment period that ended Aug. 1. The report noted that no major changes were intended during this update process given the amount of research that went into the original plan.

The Illinois Department of Transportation is now completing its final environmental impact study for the Illiana and is awaiting federal approval — a Record of Decision — possibly in late December. Meanwhile, they are lining up private partners and battling two lawsuits, filed by the Environmental Law and Policy Center on behalf of the Sierra Club, Openlands and the Midewin Heritage Alliance.

One challenges the environmental impact study and the second questions the procedure for including the Illiana project in the GO TO 2040 plan. It maintains that MPO committee should not have been allowed to include the project after it was rejected by the CMAP board, which initially voted 10 to 4 against it.

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