Illiana expressway project has residents on edge

Illinois house to act on "quick-take" legislation, which would allow the state to take farms or land from property owners and use it for the Illiana highway project.

May 8, 2012

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WBEZ/Lauren Chooljian
What's now an open field behind Todd Benjamin's livestock trading office could soon be a massive expressway. A measure is pending in the Illinois House that would give the state "quick-take" powers for the project.

When Todd Benjamin and his wife Colleen found out about the possible routes for the Illiana expressway, they raced to their computer to see if the state would soon be bulldozing through their property.

"From what I understand they're gonna put that highway right here on the north side of this property between here and that grove of trees," Benjamin said, standing outside his livestock office in Peotone.

According to a map of three potential roadways, Benjamin could soon be looking out his office window onto a massive expressway. Members of the Illinois House are poised to take up a bill that would speed up construction of a proposed highway. The Illiana expressway project dates back as far as the early 1900s, in Daniel Burnham's Plan of Chicago, and would connect Indiana and Illinois. 

Benjamin said he understands the need for the road, but he's upset about proposals that would take away land on his and his neighbors property.

"When you think about young people with houses, with families and they're buying a home," he said. "And now they're talking about taking it away?"

Benjamin's pretty tapped into what people are talking about - his sons are the sixth generation to live on his family's farm. He says there are a lot of rumors going around about "quick-take" and what that might mean for property owners.

"You know, land is a big investment. And to have some judge just come in and say that's all it's worth, that's all you're gonna get, and oh yeah, by the way, we're not gonna pay you for a while. You've gotta go now," he said.

A measure is pending in the Illinois House that would give the Department of Transportation quick-take powers for the expressway. It's basically a fast-track version of eminent domain. The state government chooses the land it wants and then tells a judge what it'll pay. Property owners can take that money and run, or fight in court over the value, but that's after their land's been taken.

According to Dan Tarlock, professor at the IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law, quick-take is a common practice for states around the country, especially with public-private infrastructure projects like the Illiana Expressway.

"In order to induce private financing, quick-take is a big incentive to invest, otherwise a lot of private money would be tied up," Tarlock said.

Quick-take, Tarlock says, is also useful for speeding up the process when a lot of parties are involved. In the case of the Illiana expressway, people like farmers and homeowners.

"We've been worried about hold outs, that is, you've got a project, probably most property owners will voluntarily sell, but if one person decides to hold out then the whole project can be delayed," he said.

Delay is one of the reasons State Senator Toi Hutchinson supports quick-take.

"Eminent domain takes about three years but quick take takes about two, so if you add another 24 months for land acquisition then we could be breaking ground in 2016," Hutchinson said.

Hutchinson is the Senate sponsor of the quick-take legislation. The bill has already passed through the Senate and is waiting for a final vote by the full House. Hutchinson said the highway project would bring needed resources to the region; it could create around 14,000 long term jobs, and could bring $6 billion in investment over the next 30 years.

"We're moving with another state, and we have a lot of moving parts to be able to coordinate, and there are also people who've been unemployed for so very long that will tell you they can't wait much longer for a job," Hutchinson said.

But Hutchinson says she does feel for landowners who could lose their land. Especially in a region where most property is passed down through generations.

"It's always difficult when the individual comes up against the needs of a region," she said.

But Todd Benjamin says it doesn't matter how long someone's owned land. He says what matters is that it's theirs, not the government's.