Illiana Tollway Project Meets Widespread Criticism in IL

In the weeks leading up to the Nov. 4th elections and in its wake, a spate of editorials by many of IL’s leading newspapers (as collected here by the Environmental Law and Policy Center) have criticized the project as wasteful, unnecessary, and/or unwarranted. On this blog, we have followed the politics of and citizen opposition to the controversial roadway, which is located in the same area — eastern Will County — and linked in spirit to the ill-fated Peotone Airport project. Both the road and the airport would have major impacts on land use, agriculture, open space, and rural communities in this part of Chicago’s south suburban region.

Today we re-post this commentary by Chicago environmental journalist and radio host Mike Nowak, who is featuring a segment about the Illinana on his show this morning on WCPT. Nowak’s pre-show analysis contains a wealth of news updates and resource links that collectively address the status of the Illiana project in the context of changing IL politics. 

What Does a New Governor Mean for the Fate of the Illiniana Tollway?

(By Mike Nowak)

Well, there’s a new sheriff, er, governor in town, er, Illinois but it’s still unclear if the new sheriff, er, governor, will approve the $1.2 billion boondoggle known as the Illiana Tollway. I wish people would stop calling it an “expressway,” because it is literally a tollway, and it’s a pretty good bet that it will ultimately cost the state and the people who use it a lot of money if it is built. That doesn’t even take into consideration the environmental damage it will do to Illinois, which is considerable.

I stood in the back of the room with a lot of people on October 8 and 9 of this year and basically watched the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP) punch itself in the face. The board voted once again, as they had done a year before, to block the road from I-65 in Indiana to more-or-less I-55 in Illinois. . . . Unfortunately, the very next day, the MPO Policy Committee of CMAP decided (also for a second time) to ignore the recommendation of the CMAP board and approve the Illiana Tollway. POW! OUCH!

Those split decisions seem to throw the regional GO TO 2040 plan under the bus, with environmental groups threatening lawsuits, the ultimate disposition of the tollway left in doubt and the credibility of CMAP itself undermined by the process. Then, of course, Bruce Rauner defeated Pat Quinn in the gubernatorial race and everything changed.

Or did it?

Quinn and the Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT) have lobbied hard for what many people are calling the “highway to nowhere.” So where does Rauner stand on this issue? He was pretty coy about it during his campaign–which was pretty much his strategy on every issue. In response to that, here’s what the Chicago Tribune says in a piece titled Memo to Bruce Rauner: Kill the Illiana Expressway, that came out just last week:

Back in September, when you and Gov. Pat Quinn met with us to talk about the Nov. 4 election, we asked whether the Illiana Expressway would be built if you were elected governor.

The question should have been right in your wheelhouse, given that your campaign was all about fiscal responsibility and the Illiana promises to be a money-sucking fiasco. “Don’t know,” you said. “Have to see the studies.”

Have you had a chance to look at them yet?

In a few short weeks, you’ll be governor of Illinois. Deciding whether to go forward with the Illiana should be one of your first and easiest calls. But there’s no need for your transition team to spend a lot of time on research. Give us three minutes.

First, the upside: There is no upside.

Yikes. And they’re not the only ones against this project. As I wrote on October 5, when you have ententies as disparate the Chicago Tribune, Openlands, Crain’s Chicago Business, Progress Illinois and Illinois PIRG all saying that this is a bad idea . . . well, it might actually be a bad idea. A very bad idea.

Now Will County residents themselves are calling on the Illinois General Assembly to turn down any legislation that would fund or advance the tollway. And that, surprisingly, includes some local officials, including Judy Ogalla, Will County Board member from District 1, and Symerton Mayor Eli Geiss.

Ogalla states,

The Illinois Dept. of Transportation’s (IDOT) own study shows that the tolls would need to be much higher than any of those on existing toll roads today, consequently not attracting the traffic necessary to recoup the costs to build the road. This is a dangerous way to handle limited tax infrastructure dollars and puts the Illinois taxpayer at risk of paying of a toll road that in the end would not eliminate local traffic congestion due to the proposed location of the road being so much farther south of most areas where the traffic is generated.

Geiss concurs, saying,

The Village of Symerton is opposed to the building of the Illiana highway. It will totally disrupt our way of life. Many of the residents of our village have lived here for generations. This project will not provide long term jobs and the state of Illinois doesn’t have the money to fund it.

Leading the charge against this project are groups like Openlands, whose CEO and President Jerry Adelmann says,

Not only would the Illiana Tollway negatively impact or destroy natural areas, farmland, and open space, it runs counter to every conceivable concept of sound regional planning. Absurd projects such as this should be the stuff of Illinois’ past. It’s time to put an end to the Illiana.

Jack Darin, Director of the Sierra Club, Illinois Chapter, chimes in:

The Illiana Expressway would pave over some of the best farmland in the world, pollute the Kankakee River watershed, and threaten the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie. Leaders from around the region have expressed concern that the Illiana project would siphon dollars from other transportation projects and undermine planning for a strong Chicago region.


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