Chicago agency narrowly approves Illiana Tollway

It’s been on the drawing board for a hundred years, and the fate of the Illiana Expressway now rests with an Indiana regional planning board

October 17, 2013

UPDATED 11 p.m.: The Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning voted 11-8 on Thursday night to add the Illiana Tollway to its Go To 2040 plan. That means the Illinios Department of Transportation can now start seeking bids to build the highway. 

The vote came after nearly three hours of debate among board members, elected officials and the public. Opponents cited the high costs of the project, destruction of farmland and potential harm to natural areas. But supporters like U.S. Rep. Robin Kelly said it was about investing in a region that deserves funding as much as Chicago does. 

"It feels like the opposition to the Illiana, sometimes, is based on a long-standing bias against the Southland when it comes to infrastructure investment," Kelly said.

The Northwest Indiana Regional Planning Commission still must approve the highway. That vote won't come until December. 

 

WBEZ's Michael Puente and Melba Lara provide an update about Thursday night's decision in the audio below:

 

 

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Tommy Daniels mostly likes being a truck driver. His run takes him to Green Bay Packer territory, down to southern Illinois and parts of Indiana.

But on a recent afternoon, Daniels was dreading hitting the road.

He was about to set off from the Petro Truck Stop in south suburban Crete, and he says that means wading into lots of traffic on Interstate 294.

“It’s terrible. It’s one of the worst things you’d ever want to get caught up in,” Daniels, of University Park, said.

Daniels says he supports efforts to build the alternate east-west route called the Illiana Expressway. The nearly 50-mile highway would run from I-55 in Will County to I-65 in Northwest Indiana.

“They should have did it 20 years ago, 40 years ago,” Daniels said.

Later today (Thursday), the policy board for the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP) will meet to decide if the Illiana Expressway should be added to its Go To 2040 plan.

A ‘yes’ vote means the Illiana would be in line for millions of dollars in funding. A ‘no’ vote could sound the death knell of a proposal that’s been on the drawing board in one form or another for more than a century.

Up until now, CMAP has sent mixed signals. A transportation committee for CMAP voted last week to include the Illiana on the Go To 2040 plan but several members voted against the plan.

CMAP’s own staff recommended against funding the Illiana, claiming the highway would not produce enough permanent jobs and cost way too much. CMAP’s main board also voted against the Illiana but now the policy board has the final say.

If it were up to Tim Pals, he would definitely build the Illiana. Pals owns and operates Eagle Express Lines in south suburban South Holland, Ill. His company hauls mail for the U.S. Postal Service and congestion often plays a role in whether a package is delivered on time.

“We have critical entry times that the Post Office has to have the mail in by. So, traffic is a big deal,” Pals, of Crown Point, Indiana, said.

Even though he’s in favor of the Illiana, Pals also cautions that if tolls on the Illiana are too expensive, truckers may not use it.

“If you’re going from say even the western suburbs to Indianapolis, it would make a lot of sense because you would avoid all this bottleneck traffic down here. But it would all depend on how much it’s going to cost for the toll as well,” Pals says. “When the new I-355 extension was put on, it was not only a toll road, it was tolled at a higher rate for trucks than 294. So, if something like that went through, who knows?”

If built, the Illiana could also have an impact on the little town of Manhattan, Illinois, about an hour southwest of Chicago.

“There’s a lot of trucks,” says Ed Cooper, who’s lived in Manhattan for most of his life and frequently watches trucks rumble through town on their way to large distribution warehouses. He also favors the Illiana, but worries about its effect on nearby landowners.

“A lot of landowners down there are going to lose, you know,” Cooper said. “Because they’ll they just condemn the ground. They won’t give them what it’s worth. “

Even if CMAP gives the green light to the Illiana, it will be awhile before cars and trucks travel on it.

“They could start today and it won’t be done in 20 years anyway so it’s not going to bother us old farts,” Cooper said.

Because the region is home to several large intermodal facilities, building the Illiana near here makes sense. But some critics contend there’s not enough population to justify the new highway.

However, if the Illiana isn’t built now, farm land that’s open will eventually be overtaken by new housing developments and businesses.

“It will develop. It will grow,” says Manhattan resident and attorney Ben Hyink.

Manhattan is home to several nice subdivisions and miles of wide open farmland.

It’s also close to the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, which has caused some environmentalists to oppose the Illiana.

Still, Hyink says there’s been surprisingly little talk about it around town. Folks might be skeptical since another nearby development project, the so-called Peotone airport, has gone nowhere.

Hyink says the Illiana decision will affect not just that potential third Chicago airport, but also how the entire south region grows in the future.

“It looks like it’s all designed around a Peotone airport. And if the Peotone airport doesn’t go in then it is a highway to nowhere.”

Follow WBEZ’s Northwest Indiana Reporter Michael Puente on Twitter @MikePuenteNews and on Facebook.