Residents remain guarded as proposed Illiana plan takes shape
By CaRRIE NAPOLEON Post-Tribune correspondent June 23, 2012 6:52PM
Ted Gross walks along the dam near a neighbor's property at Lake Julia in the Moriah subdivision on the Crown Point and Lowell, Ind. border Wednesday June 6, 2012. INDOT's preferred route for the Illiana road would greatly impact the area. The southern end of the preferred route would cut through the lake's dam, according to neighbors. | Stephanie Dowell~Sun-Times Media
For more information
On the project, to view an interactive map of the routes still under consideration or to sign up for notification of the upcoming public meeting visit www.illianacorridor.org
Updated: July 25, 2012 6:23AM
LOWELL — Residents in the Moriah subdivision enjoy walking into their back yards for the peaceful view the small, private 22-acre man-made lake has to offer.
A line of tall trees stands just west of the dam that created Lake Julia and helps block the sound and view from the traffic on Indiana 55. They describe their 15-home community as one of Lake County’s best-kept secrets. They fear that may soon change.
The Moriah subdivision is one of many residential areas in the 2,000-foot-wide swatch of land paralleling the high-tension power lines from Interstate 65 to Interstate 55 in Illinois identified by the Illiana Corridor Study as the preferred B-3 route for the proposed Illiana Expressway.
“We’re in the eye of the storm,” said Don Carnahan, who along with neighbor Ted Gross, has been battling against the proposed route at meetings in a letter-writing campaign to state and local officials for more than three years.
The pair are among the residents who have lived in the subdivision for the longest, more than two decades each. They decry the cloud of uncertainty that has hung over them since plans for the expressway north of Lowell were announced, stalling the sale of homes and discouraging residents from investing any more money into their well-kept homes.
While the path will be trimmed to 400 feet when the final route is selected, they fear if the B-3 route does go through in the worst-case scenario they will lose their homes and see the manmade lake drained. In the best-case scenario, their subdivision would rest in the shadow of a truck-laden expressway complete with noise and air pollution they did not bargain on when building their homes.
“It is a quality-of-life issue,” Carnahan said.
“Why would they do that?” Gross asked.
Route up for debate
A glimmer of hope emerged after February meetings on the Illiana in Crown Point produced more than 500 responses from local residents against the B-3 route. Officials from both the Indiana Department of Transportation and Illinois Department of Transportation at a town hall meeting in Lowell in April said that outcry has prompted them to consider B-4, a route south of Lowell that appears to be preferred by local residents and a majority of local politicians as well.
Another round of public meetings is planned in July for additional input on the routes, according to Jim Pinkerton, communications director for INDOT’s LaPorte District. Information from those meetings, along with the results of the Illiana Corridor Planning Group’s study that takes into account factors such as how traffic will move, how the route will handle cars and the impact to buildings, will be considered before the final route is selected by the end of 2012.
“Nothing will be determined until the end of the process, until the end of 2012,” Pinkerton said.
However, following a May stakeholders meeting by the Illiana Corridor Planning Group in Matteson, Ill., local officials are not too sure.
“I’ve been to all the public meetings they have had and have listened to everything they said from the start. They already know where it’s going,” said Lake County Commissioner Gerry Scheub, D-2nd. He said even though they are having meetings to gather public input, planners will “still do what they want to do.”
Lowell Town Councilman Craig Early, D-1st, agreed.
“It’s a song and dance,” Early said. He attended the Matteson meeting and came away with the impression that public outcry and local officials’ concerns just did not matter.
“The bottom line is the corridor planning group is going to recommend the B-3 route,” Early said. While he personally is against the expressway altogether, if it comes he and the rest of the Lowell Town Council are unanimously in favor of the route south of Lowell.
“The Town Council is adamant about it being south of Lowell, not north,” Early said.
Town officials support the south route for a variety of reasons including access to the CSX and Norfolk & Southern railroad tracks and their turn-around in Schneider that will make it the most beneficial route for future economic development of the town.
More importantly, officials are concerned about safety and the impact the expressway will have on north-south routes and the ability of the cash-strapped Tri-Creek EMS and Lowell Volunteer Fire Departments to provide emergency services quickly to the residents they serve throughout south Lake County.
“I left that meeting beside myself,” Early said. He does not believe the impact of the expressway and its location on Indiana residents and towns are being taken seriously by planners. The expressway is touted as a way to relieve congestion on Interstates 65 and 80/94, but he said it is more designed to relieve traffic in Illinois.
“My whole theory on this thing, I just feel we are no more than a dumping ground for Illinois’ traffic issues. (Planners) just really don’t care,” Early said.
Schneider Town Council president Richard Ludlow came away from the meeting with similar feelings. Ludlow has long supported the expressway no matter what route it may take. He said it will be necessary once the proposed trash-to-ethanol plant is built. Ludlow said he personally favors the route south of Lowell and believes it will impact fewer homeowners, but will support what the majority of his constituents ultimately want.
The southernmost route is fraught with different challenges than homeowners, because it lies in the Kankakee River basin. Because of those challenges, he does not believe planners are giving that route serious consideration regardless of resident and officials input.
“I still remember the quote one of Illinois engineers, it’s cheaper to buy houses and bulldoze than fill in swamp. They don’t seem to care,” Ludlow said.
Does it fit in the master plan?
Lake County Councilman Rick Niemeyer, R-7th, shares some of Early’s concerns and has a few more of his own. Niemeyer said it is time the planners come before the council and the Lake County Plan Commission to discuss the proposal and how it fits in the county’s master plan, something they have not yet done.
“I think it’s time they do that. I’m very concerned they haven’t done that,” Niemeyer said.
He said local officials’ opinions on the matter need to be taken into consideration as well as those of residents. Like Early, he said the expressway will work more toward solving traffic problems in Illinois and not Indiana. Niemeyer said he, too, has questions about the north-south cut-offs, the impact on emergency services and how those service providers will be compensated for providing fire and ambulance service to the expressway. He would also like to know how the plan will be funded and what the tolls will cost.
“There are a lot of concerns we have now. I think it’s got to that point where we need to be sit down with them,” he said. “We’ve got home rule. I know it is a bi-state thing, but the home rule has got to take some precedence.”
Pinkerton confirmed that after further study it does still appear the B-3 route will be the recommended route by the Illiana Corridor Planning Group, but he stressed that decision has not been made. Once the route is determined, issues such as the north-south cut-offs, impact on emergency services and financing will be addressed in the Tier II study.
Carnahan and Gross said they believe the only way planners will change their mind is if local residents come out in force as they did in the Valparaiso area after the initial announcement more than three years ago proposed the terminus for the proposed Illiana Expressway would be further east through Porter County instead of I-65. Their efforts were successful.
They are hopeful Lake County residents do not get complacent on the issue, thinking the expressway will never come, and come out in force when the public meetings are scheduled to voice their concerns.
“We need a united front,” Carnahan said.