Northwest Indiana planning officials on Thursday approved moving forward on the Illiana Tollway, a 47-mile, $1.5 billion expressway project that officials in Illinois and Indiana want to build in the far southern reaches of the Chicago metro area.
Because the roadway will connect the two states, it needed approvals from governmental bodies in both. The project is a joint venture between the Illinois and Indiana departments of Transportation.
Officials say the tollway will be paid for by private dollars and federal funds.
The Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP) approved adding the Illiana Tollway to its Go To 2040 master plan in October, but not before considerable debate and opposition.
Those opposed, including Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, said the highway is just too far from densely developed areas to have any significant impact on traffic or economic development.
Proponents say the Iliana will help alleviate congestion on existing highways, such at Interstate 80/94, by providing an alternate east-west route from I-55 near Wilmington in Illinois’ Will County to I-65 near Indiana city of Lowell.
Once CMAP approved the Illiana, it was expected approvals in Northwest Indiana would be a breeze. The proposal did pass overwhelmingly Thursday at the meeting of the Northwestern Indiana Regional Planning Commission (NIRPC).
But over the past few weeks, it did draw louder opposing voices than had been anticipated.
Residents of Lowell strongly objected to the tollway, contending it will destroy existing neighborhoods and cut through farmland.
Hammond, Ind., Mayor Tom McDermott, Jr., unsuccessfully pressed the board to hold off on today’s vote. A voting member of NIRPC, McDermott said more information was needed before the 53-member body made up of elected officials from Lake, Porter and LaPorte counties could vote on the matter.
He also said he believes the highway would do much to divert investment from Hammond, his struggling blue-collar city adjacent to Chicago.
“It is what it is. There are a lot of people who are proud of their vote. I’m not proud right now,” McDermott said late Thursday morning after the session at Woodland Park in Portage, Ind. “There’s no question that it’s going to be detrimental to Northwest Indiana. The policy of INDOT [the Indiana Department of Transportation] and the state of Indiana is ignore the problems up north and invest down south.”
But Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson, whose city is struggling with disinvestment and high unemployment on a level greater than neighboring Hammond, supports building the tollway.
She says her city needs to think regionally, something she contends previous mayors avoided.
“It creates economic development opportunities for the region and, in so doing, the citizens of Gary will have an opportunity to benefit from that,” Freeman-Wilson said.
Freeman-Wilson responded to critics who contend that the Illiana will boost the creation of a proposed third major airport for Chicago near Peotone, Ill., in the southern part of Will County and near the route designed for the new highway.
She says Peotone is no threat to the Gary Chicago International Airport in her city. “Is someone going to leave Northwest Indiana and go to an airport in Peotone? The answer has to be no,” Freeman-Wilson said.
McDermott had objected to the “weighted” vote process, because it gave more influence to the city of Gary. He said Hammond should have had the most votes because it is the largest city in Northwest Indiana, with Gary coming in second by a few hundred residents based on the 2010 census. But the vote was based on population numbers from the 2000 census, when Gary was the largest city.
McDermott’s concern became a moot point, though, because the outcome was so overwhelmingly in favor of the Illiana. After the vote, Freeman-Wilson and other proponents shook hands with union members who will benefit from jobs constructing the tollway.
Construction could start as soon as 2015, although it is several years away from completion. But congratulatory words arrived from both near and far from supporters.
"I believe roads mean jobs, and today's vote on the Illiana Corridor Project brings us one step closer to more jobs for Northwestern Indiana. I am grateful to the members of the Northwestern Indiana Regional Planning Commission for their vote in favor of this important project, which will bring jobs and economic growth to northwestern Indiana and throughout the state,” Indiana Republican Gov. Mike Pence stated in a written statement. “The innovative funding for this project will bring new investment dollars into the state transportation system and allow the Indiana Department of Transportation to make further infrastructure investments that will benefit the region for generations to come.”
Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn, his Illinois’ counterpart, offered his support.
“The Northwestern Indiana Regional Planning Commission’s vote today is a victory for jobs and economic development in both Indiana and Illinois,” Quinn stated. “The Illiana Expressway will greatly improve transportation throughout the region, bring thousands of jobs, reduce congestion, and improve safety, job accessibility and air quality. I salute the Indiana officials who continue to partner with us to make the Illiana a reality.”
U.S. Sen. Dan Coats, an Indiana Republican, described the project as critically important.
“This will stimulate new economic activity and job opportunities in northwest Indiana. Given the fiscal constraints our nation is facing in Washington, the Illiana Expressway is a forward-looking solution that leverages innovative private sector funding sources,” Coats said in a written statement.
For many, today’s vote continues a dream of seeing the Illiana become a reality at last. It was first proposed by Chicago’s great planner Daniel Burnham a century ago.
Follow WBEZ Reporter Michael Puente on Twitter @MikePuenteNews.