Illiana Expressway’s road getting bumpy
By Cindy Wojdyla Cain email@example.com August 10, 2013 11:24PM
Land owners review plans for the Illiana Expressway in June at Peotone High School. | File photo
Potential roadblocks are surfacing to the proposed Illiana Expressway that would connect Interstates 55 and 65 in Illinois and Indiana.
Two months ago, Illinois Transportation Secretary Ann Schneider came to Joliet to announce an aggressive schedule for the $1.2 billion highway, which likely would be a tollway. She predicted a 2015 groundbreaking date after the completion of an environmental impact study that’s now under way.
But then three environmental groups — Openlands, the Midewin Heritage Association and the Sierra Club — filed a federal lawsuit in Chicago on July 10 to try to block the project. And on July 30, a staff analysis by the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning criticized the Illiana plan, including its estimated cost and economic benefits.
The analysis, public comments and a staff recommendation will all be forwarded to the CMAP board and the Metropolitan Planning Organization board for review and votes in October. Federal regulations require the two boards to agree to amend their Go to 2040 long-term transportation plan to include the Illiana or environmental studies cannot continue and the road won’t be built.
The final CMAP staff recommendation hasn’t been made, but the current analysis raises many issues with the 47-mile highway’s planning by the Illinois Department of transportation.
CMAP staffers view IDOT’s cost estimates as low. For instance, the study says the Illiana would cost $8.1 million per lane mile in 2020 dollars. But that estimate is much lower than similar projects, including the Interstate 355 extension through Will County that opened in 2007 and cost $18.9 million per lane mile.
IDOT and the Indiana Department of Transportation have agreed to use a public-private partnership to get the highway built, but they have not decided on the form of that partnership, according to the study. CMAP staffers said they could not fully evaluate how the public’s interest would be protected in such an arrangement until a plan is picked. One version puts more risk on the developer; another on the states and taxpayers.
The CMAP analysis also questions IDOT favoring a highway route that’s farther south in a largely rural area and cites concerns about the Illiana’s impact on breeding birds at the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie and Will County’s underground watersheds.
CMAP staffers analyzed land use plans from Crete, Elwood, Manhattan, Peotone, University Park, Wilmington and Will County and found that they didn’t address the Illiana Expressway corridor because, until recently, plans for the road weren’t moving very fast.
IDOT spokeswoman Jae Miller said that while the CMAP memo criticizes some of the Illiana’s numbers, the estimates likely will change through the planning process.
“We think this is a very important project, and the initial estimates are just that, initial estimates,” she said. “Final estimates will not be determined until after further analysis and negotiations. We’re just going through this process, and a lot of this is subject to change. ... We feel confident that this will get resolved, and we’re going to continue to work with our partners to get the project completed at the lowest possible cost.”
John Greuling, president and chief executive of the Will County Center for Economic Development, alerted the county board’s executive committee to the CMAP memo on Thursday. He stressed that the public comment period on IDOT’s proposal to include the Illiana in the 2040 plan ends Sept. 3.
County board Speaker Herb Brooks Jr. (D-Joliet), chairman of the executive committee, directed county staff to draft a letter of support for IDOT’s plan.
Anyone can comment on the Illiana Expressway plan by writing to CMAP, Attn: Plan amendments, 233 S. Wacker Drive, Suite 800, Chicago IL 60606; sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org or calling (312) 454-0400.
The Center for Economic Development has formed a committee of government, business and labor leaders who support the Illiana Expressway, and the group will be formally announced soon after its membership is finalized, Greuling said.
When the I-355 extension was delayed in 1996 by an environmental lawsuit, the Center for Economic Development formed a committee called SAFE, the Southern Alliance for the Extension, that lobbied successfully for the road to be built.
Greuling said he has faith that the federal review process, and even the environmentalists’ lawsuit, will help resolve any environmental and planning issues, but he hopes the process isn’t as long as it was for the I-355 extension.
Greuling noted that people always complain that government moves too slowly, but when the Illiana project was accelerated by IDOT, “all of a sudden (people say) they’re moving too fast. There’s a little bit of irony there.”