Kadner: ‘Forgotonia’ may lose planned Illiana Expressway

By Phil Kadner [email protected] September 18, 2013 8:30PM

Dubbing the Southland “Forgotonia,” state Rep. Al Riley (D-Olympia Fields) and a delegation of area legislators on Wednesday launched a battle to rescue the beleaguered Illiana Expressway project.

The Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning — which oversees planning for the seven-county metro area and must approve the project under federal guidelines — recently posted on its website a staff analysis of the project.

CMAP claims that the highway would cost much more than state projections suggest and would not aid the regional economy as much as expected.

Riley said two states that “don’t have a lot of things in common,” Illinois and Indiana, have agreed that the planned tollway is needed and that political leaders throughout the Southland support the plan.

Illinois Transportation Secretary Ann Schneider said IDOT’s $1.25 billion cost estimate is based on national standards, and she questioned the basis of CMAP’s findings.

Riley and Schneider were joined at a news conference at the Thompson Center in downtown Chicago by state Sens. Toi Hutchinson (D-Olympia Fields), Pat McGuire (D-Joliet), Michael Hastings (D-Orland Hills) and Donne Trotter (D-Chicago) and state Reps. Larry Walsh Jr. (D-Elwood), Robert Rita (D-Blue Island) and Marcus Evans (D-Chicago).

Hutchinson and McGuire emphasized that population growth in Will County, the fastest-growing region of Illinois, validates the need for the Illiana Expressway, which would connect Interstate 65 near Lowell, Ind., to Interstate 55 near Wilmington, creating an alternative to Interstate 80.

Riley said he recently witnessed a traffic jam on I-80 that extended from the Indiana line to Interstate 355 and said that such bottlenecks are likely to occur more often in the future because of increased traffic in the corridor.

That point was hammered home by Walsh, who noted that two large intermodal centers have been constructed near Joliet in recent years and a third is likely to be built soon, resulting in a major increase in truck traffic on I-80.

But CMAP’s staff seems far more interested in improving existing roads in Chicago’s northwest suburbs, including a western access road to O’Hare International Airport.

Although the Illiana Expressway would be built as a private-public partnership under IDOT’s proposal, CMAP questioned whether private partners could be found and noted that such partnerships involve a “high-level of risk for both the public and private sectors.”

Schneider said she could not release all of IDOT’s financial estimates before the bidding process begins but indicated she is confident that the state will find a partner, saying as many as 15 parties have indicated an interest.

Hutchinson, the chief sponsor of the Illiana legislation, called the project “critically important to our region and the state.”

Many of the speakers Wednesday emphasized that the proposed tollway would create nearly 8,000 construction jobs immediately and eventually produce economic growth that would result in thousands of new, permanent jobs. Its construction could begin as early as next year.

In its report, CMAP staff says the 47-mile road would eventually cost far more than IDOT’s estimate and would require another $1.5 billion in expenditures on connecting roads.

The critical report comes on the heels of an equally negative appraisal of the Illiana Expressway by the Metropolitan Planning Council, a nonprofit organization that promotes sound regional growth.

CMAP will vote Oct. 9 on whether to include the Illiana Expressway in its Go To 2040 regional plan (a prerequisite for the project to receive federal funding).

While Southland legislators were unanimous in their support for the Illiana, they seemed reluctant to speculate on why CMAP would release such a blatantly critical report on it.

Riley said he’s a professional urban planner by training, yet CMAP staff had not contacted him or any other legislator for input before releasing its report.

When I suggested that the legislators seemed to be sidestepping the real issue, Riley said, “we have been Forgotonia in the south suburbs for a long time,” noting that economic development in every other area of the Chicago region has far surpassed that of the Southland.

In my view, all transportation planning in Illinois for decades has been tainted by economic elitism and possibly even racism.

It wasn’t long ago that Metra officials announced plans for what I dubbed “The White Line”: a suburban rapid transit line connecting the north, west and southwest suburbs and completely bypassing the suburbs east of Interstate 57.

The free market will eventually determine the worth of the Illiana Expressway. Either private developers will see a profit in building the tollway or they won’t.

“If they don’t,” Schneider said, “Illinois will not build the expressway.”

She said forecasts call for Will County to have a population of 1.2 million by 2040, making it the second most populous county in Illinois.

Several of the lawmakers also noted that after decades of delay, IDOT is finally moving forward to build the long-planned airport near Peotone, and the Illiana Expressway would run along its southern border.

The sad fact is that no TV news crews attended the news conference.

I doubt that would happen if legislators near O’Hare called a news conference in downtown Chicago.

There ought to be a sign on I-57, just south of Chicago: “Welcome to Forgotonia.”