City of Gary could hold the key to Illiana’s passage

December 11, 2013

(WBEZ/Michael Puente)
A final vote on Illiana Tollway happens Thursday morning.

Northwest Indiana officials will vote Thursday morning on a controversial highway that been on the drawing books for a century.

But some are taking issue with the final vote and how it will be calculated.

Some 53 elected officials from Lake, Porter and LaPorte counties will decide the two-state Illiana Tollway.

They all sit on what is known as the Northern Indiana Regional Planning Commission, or NIPRC for short.

NIRPC decides how federal funds will be allocated for local projects.

Thursday's vote will determine whether NIPRC should include the Illiana Tollway in its 2040 long range comprehensive plan and if the Illiana should receive federal funding.

NIPRC’s counterpart in Illinois, the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, did the same thing two months ago. It approved financing Illinois’ $1 billion portion of the highway.

The 47-mile, $1.5 billion tollway will run from I-55 near Wilmington, Illinois in Will County to I-65 near Lowell in Lake County, Indiana. Planners hope to pay for the project with private funding. Indiana’s cost will be about $300 million.

The Illiana will actually be a joint project of the Illinois and Indiana departments of Transportation. Both agencies have worked together in hosting public forums on the matter since the summer.

Proponents say the tollway will create thousands of construction jobs and provide an alternative east-west route to ease congestion on existing highways.

Supporters include Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn and Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, as well as local trade unions.

Opponents say the tollway is too far south to have any impact on traffic, will lead to urban sprawl, and destroy farmland, nature areas, and existing neighborhoods.

Vocal opposition in recent days has grown louder.

The mayor of Hammond, Indiana, Tom McDermott Jr., opposes the Illiana because he says it will lead to disinvestment in struggling northern Lake County cities like his, and East Chicago and Gary, the region’s industrial corridor.

“(Illiana) does not focus on rebuilding the urban core. which is really one of our main problems in Northwest Indiana is rebuilding Gary, Hammond, East Chicago and Whiting,” McDermott said on WBEZ’s Afternoon Shift program on Wednesday. “What this is going to encourage people to do is to sprawl even further south further away from the cities, which is going to require even more infrastructure and more money.”

Meanwhile, Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson is not saying how she will vote.

Some say the vote will come down to how Gary officials on the NIRPC executive board will vote today.

Representation on the NIPRC board is based on population.

Gary will have the most votes, even though it is not the largest city in Northwest Indiana.

That title, based on the 2010 census, belongs to Hammond, by just a few hundred residents.

NIPRC’s board and vote is based on the 2000 census when Gary’s population was well over 100,000. Today, it stands at less than 80,000, fewer than Hammond’s.

The town of Lowell, Indiana, was 23 percent smaller in 2000 than it is today with a population of just under 10,000.

A majority of Lowell residents, about 25 miles south of Gary, have come out against the Illiana.

Christine Cid, a Lake County Councilman, says today’s vote will give Lowell less of a voice since NIPRC is using old census numbers in determine the “weighted” vote.

Cid is a voting member and says she will vote against adding the Illiana to NIPRC’s 2040 plan.

“For some reason, that did not change in the NIPRC legislation when it comes to a weighted vote. So we will now be voting on the 2000 census population,” Cid said Wednesday afternoon. “Gary and Hammond are still the heavily populated and have the majority of the vote. What it did was the people in the south, such as Lowell, who are against this project, have less of a vote. So, I think a lot of it depends on the city of Gary.”

Like McDermott, Cid, who lives in East Chicago, some 45 miles away from Lowell, says the Illiana is at odds with NIPRC’s 2040 plan.

“It doesn’t fit our goal to help the northern end that has lost a lot of population,” Cid said. “And that’s what we need to do is to at least retain the population and build those properties back up.”

Thursday's vote will take place at Woodland Park in Portage, Indiana.

The Illiana highway was a concept allegedly first proposed by Chicago’s great planner Daniel Burnham a century ago.