Updated: October 8, 2013 10:34PM
If you often find yourself stuck in those maddening I-80 traffic jams through the south suburbs, the thought of a parallel tollway farther south in Will County might sound like a terrific idea. Anything that diverts traffic, particularly trucks, onto another road can only help.
That is the best argument in favor of the proposed $1.25 billion Illiana Expressway, which would run from I-55 near Wilmington east to I-65 in Indiana. It also would speed traffic to the site of a proposed third regional airport near Peotone.
But when the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning votes Wednesday and the Metropolitan Planning Organization Policy Committee votes Oct. 17, we urge them to reject this project. So too should the Northwestern Indiana Regional Planning Commission when it votes in December. Even as a public-private partnership and with tolls more than double the average on other area tollways, the Illiana would require huge taxpayer subsidies. That’s money better spent on transportation projects more critical to the region’s future. CMAP estimates the taxpayer subsidy could run as high as $1.1 billion.
Nearly three years ago, in a plan called Go to 2040, CMAP and other organizations agreed that we can no longer afford the unchecked urban sprawl that has characterized Chicago area development since World War II. Instead of building costly new infrastructure on the fringes of the metropolitan area, a consensus was reached that we should focus on improving transportation — including mass transit — where most people already live.
By some estimates, the Illiana would skim off roughly 10 percent of the public money the region will have available for major transportation projects between now and 2040, but CMAP estimates that its regional benefits would be marginal, even in reducing traffic congestion around the lake.
Backers say the new 47-mile tollway, which would not be part of the existing tollway system, would create jobs and $4 billion worth of long-term economic opportunities. But Illinois Transportation Secretary Ann Schneider told Crain’s Chicago Business the Illiana would create just 940 full-time jobs over the next 30 years. Many of the new jobs would be in Indiana. And CMAP calls the estimates of economic opportunities unsubstantiated.
Illinois Manufacturers’ Association President and CEO Greg Baise — who was state secretary of transportation under former Gov. Jim Thompson — points out that if we had always based transportation investment on population and the most need, we never would have built the Interstates, which run through many lightly inhabited areas. True enough, but the Interstates were built at a time when the region’s footprint was considerably smaller and we were not struggling to finance a regional mass transit system with a $31 billion backlog of capital needs and deferred maintenance.
South suburban and DuPage County officials support the Illiana, which has been on the drawing boards for decades. So do Gov. Pat Quinn and Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), a fan of public-private partnerships. But Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, whose constituencies would not be the prime beneficiaries, oppose it. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) is neutral.
Our region has a critical need for investment in transportation infrastructure. Take the Illiana off the short list of priorities.