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Illiana showdown vote looms

Nell Ken Fabish have 20-acre farm this path proposed bi-state IllianExpressway. The couple live Morse Street between Lowell Cedar Lake.

Nell and Ken Fabish have a 20-acre farm that is in the path of the proposed bi-state Illiana Expressway. The couple live on Morse Street, between Lowell and Cedar Lake. | Carole Carlson/Post-Tribune

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WHAT: final vote on the Illiana Expressway

WHO: Northwestern Indiana Regional Planning Commission board

WHEN: 9 a.m. Thursday

WHERE: Woodland Park, 2100 Willowcreek Road, Portage

Updated: January 12, 2014 6:37AM

LOWELL — For 41 years, Chicago transplants Nell and Ken Fabish relished their rural lifestyle on a 20-acre spread where they raised horses, cows and crops.

The future of the couple’s bucolic life hangs in the balance now as their property lies in the crosshairs of the Illiana Expressway.

Political leaders from Illinois and Indiana have joined forces to promote the highway that will be operated as a tollway and built by a private company.

Illinois officials have signed off on the highway and what’s considered the final action could come at Thursday’s 9 a.m. Northwestern Indiana Regional Planning Commission meeting at Willowcreek Park in Portage. That’s when as many as 53 commission members from Lake, Porter and LaPorte counties will vote on including the 47-mile Illiana in their 2040 master plan.

In the same vote, the commission will consider the widening of Interstate 65 from Indiana 231 to Indiana 2.

If the proposal is rejected, Illiana could be kicked to the curb.

Illiana opponents

Meanwhile on Monday, survey crews began staking off the Fabishes’ property in the 16500 block of Morse Street. Plans for Illiana — essentially in their backyard— have angered and saddened the couple who hoped to leave their land to their children and grandchildren.

“If we lose it, how do you replace it? It’s like you’re the loser. People are going to make money off this. Business will make money. Tolls will be paid, but people will be displaced,” Nell Fabish said. “They can’t make us whole.”

She said about 67 Hoosier property owners are in the Illiana Corridor, but an Indiana Department of Transportation official could not confirm the number on Tuesday. The state would purchase their property for the expressway.

Also on Tuesday, the Lake County Council, in a nonbinding resolution, opposed construction of the $1.5 billion highway.

Illiana, kicked around for a couple decades, will extend only 10 miles into Lake County in Indiana, for now. It would run from Interstate 55 near Wilmington, Ill., to Interstate 65, northeast of Lowell.

Nell Fabish has nicknamed it “the road to nowhere.”

Illiana fans

Illiana has its supporters in political and labor circles. Crown Point Mayor David Uran, who chairs NIRPC’s board, backs the highway along with his City Council. Hobart and Merrillville elected officials support it, along with the Northwest Indiana Forum. Valparaiso Mayor Jon Costas supports it, also.

Labor leaders are enthusiastic over the prospect of construction jobs along the corridor that’s being promoted as a truck alternative to the Borman Expressway or Interstate 80/94.

Doug Strayer, secretary-treasurer for the Northwest Indiana Building Trades Council, said Illiana would minimize traffic on local roads and increase imports of Indiana goods. Strayer and others think Illiana will spur economic development.

It’s opposed by some environmental groups and the municipality closest to it — Lowell.

The undecided

Under NIRPC’s rules, there’s a possibility the commission could hold a weighted vote on Thursday. Based on population, Hammond’s vote from Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr. would represent 10.5 percent of the total. Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson’s vote would count for 10.4 percent. Both politicians supported NIRPC’s 2040 plan because of its focus on Lake County’s urban core communities.

Freeman-Wilson said Tuesday she still hasn’t made up her mind on Illiana. Her first consideration, she said, is what’s in the best interest of Gary residents.

“I’m still thinking about it from an economic standpoint, the impact on local businesses and I’m also thinking about concerns raised by residents in Lowell and the southern part of Lake County,” she said.

Freeman-Wilson said she’d like Gary residents to be part of any hiring plan for construction jobs.

She said she’s having conversations about using the agreement announced Monday for development and management of Gary/Chicago International Airport as a template for an Illiana private/public partnership pact.

Freeman-Wilson said she’s also considering what a “no” vote would mean to her city down the road when it seeks assistance from Republican state officials who support Illiana.

Nell and Ken Fabish say they’ll attend Thursday’s meeting and hope for the best.

They’ve begun looking around for property, but it won’t be easy. “We thought we were going to be here the rest of our lives,” Ken Fabish said.

“If it was a question of us finding another house, we could do it, but to lose the land — that’s a whole new ball game,” Nell Fabish said.

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